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September 8, 2011

Might prison-friendly cell phones be a wiser response to contraband phones smuggled behind bars?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new item from the Washington Post, which is headlined "Illegal cellphone use by federal prisoners on the rise." Here is the back-story:

The number of cellphones smuggled into federal prisons has more than tripled in the past three years, posing a growing security risk, according to a new report.  Federal law prohibits the use of cellphones by federal inmates, but the Federal Bureau of Prisons seized 8,656 cellphones from inmates in 2010, up from 1,774 in 2008, according to the report by the Government Accountability Office. More than three-quarters of the phones seized were from minimum-security prisons....

The growing use of cellphones makes it harder for prison officials to track calls made by inmates — in some cases allowing them to continue committing crimes, GAO said.  In one case, a federal inmate used a contraband cellphone behind bars to operate an identity-theft ring that rang up more than $254,000 worth of fraudulent credit card charges.  The inmate is now serving an additional 14 years in prison.

Prison officials are using X-ray machines and metal detectors to screen visitors and catch cellphones and other contraband — but some still slip through.  In hopes of stopping the smuggling, BOP is testing new technologies — including hand-held cellphone tracking devices — to detect mobile phones.  But the agency hasn’t established a way to determine whether the tests are working, GAO said.

Contraband cellphones are also common in state prisons: The GAO found that California prison officials seized 10,700 cellphones from inmates in 2010 — up considerably from about 900 in 2007.  The Maryland state prison system confiscated 1,128 phones in 2010, up from 741 in 2007.

Prison officials cited in the report said inmates are also seeking out cellphones to avoid paying local and long-distance telephone rates on prison-operated phones.  Most federal inmates are allowed to make 15-minute calls to family and friends, but the privilege is revoked if prison officials suspect an inmate is using call time inappropriately.

The BOP charges six cents per minute for local calls and 23 cents per minute for long distance. Revenues from the calls totaled $74 million in 2010 and are used to pay for prison amenities, including psychology, reading and arts programs and recreational activities, GAO said.  Though BOP’s per-minute call rates are lower than military prisons and most state facilities, GAO said that lowering the rates might compel inmates to stop seeking out contraband cellphones.

The full GAO report  on this issue, which has the thrilling title of " Improved Evaluations and Increased Coordination Could Improve Cell Phone Detection," can be accessed in full at this link.  Among interesting parts of the report is this account of the current federal effort to combat this cell phone problem via a new federal criminal law:

In August 2010, the Cell Phone Contraband Act of 2010 was passed and amended 18 U.S.C. § 1791 to prohibit an inmate of a prison from possessing, obtaining, or attempting to obtain a cell phone.  The Cell Phone Contraband Act also provided for punishing such possession with a fine or imprisonment for not more than 1 year, or both.  BOP stated that cell phones are considered hazardous tools, as defined by BOP policy as tools most likely to be used in an escape attempt or to serve as weapons capable of doing serious bodily harm to others; or those hazardous to institutional security or personal safety.  According to officials in BOP’s Correctional Programs Division, when an inmate is caught with a cell phone, an incident report is filed and the inmate is subject to BOP’s disciplinary process, which involves an administrative hearing.  The inmate ultimately could face a range of sanctions from transfer to a higher-security institution to loss of “good time” or other privileges.  BOP may refer the case to a law enforcement agency with criminal investigative authority for investigation, and/or to the local U.S. Attorney’s Office, which maintains discretion for prosecution.

Though I fully understand the problems that contraband cell phones can pose in prisons, I do not understand why anyone would be confident that this new federal criminal law would be likely to be effective at addressing these problems (or would even ever get seriously enforced by federal prosecutors).

As the title of my post hints, I think trying to provide inmates with controlled and closely monitored access to a prison-friendly cell phone may be a much more effective way to deal with a problem that seem likely to get even more profound if and when smart-phones and tablets and other small electronics become even cheaper and easier to pass to inmates who may just want no more than a cheap and easy way to keep up with the outside world.

September 8, 2011 at 09:41 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Phone calls and contact with the outside world should not be a revenue stream given its importance to rehab. (That includes the visitor fees from an earlier post.) Drop the rates to break even and jam all the cell phones, while creating some spaces where guards can still use theirs. (This seems obvious enough that maybe I'm missing something?)

Posted by: Paul | Sep 8, 2011 10:37:45 AM

At my pen--with federal, state parolees, & local criminals--we have no PROBLEMO keeping cell phones from inmates.
There has been only 1 incident in over the last 9 years, probably none before then. We are not Bolivia, and 'No Amnesty Intl., access to an Iphone is Not "a right"'.

Posted by: adamakis | Sep 8, 2011 11:15:46 AM

It never ceases to amaze me how under educated the public is concerning the federal prison system. The above article states,"the Federal Bureau of Prisons seized 8,656 cellphones from inmates in 2010, up from 1,774 in 2008, according to the report by the Government Accountability Office. More than three-quarters of the phones seized were from minimum-security prisons....". First of a minimum security prison in the BOP has no fence and requires no physical search or x-raying for the public the access. Every prisoner leaves the prison camp under minimal supervision or none at to perform work details within the surrounding community. Many drive government vehicles, under their state drivers license, to do such. Further, the BOP requires each inmate to be absent of certain public safety factors to assigned to such facilities, (no violence, no sex offenses, no escape history, short sentences, no pending charges and no history threatening public officials). According to the above article 75% of the phones the BOP confiscated were from its minimum security facilities. Inmates at minimum security facilities are deemed to be "trustees" and have more access to the public than higher security inmates. Of course there will be more cellular devices to avoid the high phone rates. Most call home to stay in touch with children and loved ones. The problem from my experience with similarly situated individuals is over exaaggerated. The BOP does not allow dangerous offenders in minimum security institutions.

Posted by: Malcolm | Sep 8, 2011 3:37:13 PM

It never ceases to amaze me how under educated the public is concerning the federal prison system. The above article states,"the Federal Bureau of Prisons seized 8,656 cellphones from inmates in 2010, up from 1,774 in 2008, according to the report by the Government Accountability Office. More than three-quarters of the phones seized were from minimum-security prisons....". First of a minimum security prison in the BOP has no fence and requires no physical search or x-raying for the public the access. Every prisoner leaves the prison camp under minimal supervision or none at to perform work details within the surrounding community. Many drive government vehicles, under their state drivers license, to do such. Further, the BOP requires each inmate to be absent of certain public safety factors to assigned to such facilities, (no violence, no sex offenses, no escape history, short sentences, no pending charges and no history threatening public officials). According to the above article 75% of the phones the BOP confiscated were from its minimum security facilities. Inmates at minimum security facilities are deemed to be "trustees" and have more access to the public than higher security inmates. Of course there will be more cellular devices to avoid the high phone rates. Most call home to stay in touch with children and loved ones. The problem from my experience with similarly situated individuals is over exaaggerated. The BOP does not allow dangerous offenders in minimum security institutions.

Posted by: Malcolm | Sep 8, 2011 3:37:25 PM

There are more cell phones in minimum security "camps" to avoid the high cost of the phones AND the chance to talk for more than the standard 300 min. per month.

Posted by: Obvious | Sep 8, 2011 3:56:34 PM

Great article on challenges prisons face due to the rising problems created by smuggled cellphones. In addition to the many crime-related problems these phones create, they also have the impact of reducing the revenue cash-strapped facilities receive on the commissions from in-jail payphone use, at least in the US. As such, prisons here are seeking a solution that restricts the use of contraband phones yet allows them to recover their lost payphone revenue.

My firm, meshDETECT has developed a "managed" cell phone solution for prisons. This solution offers correctional facilities the following benefits:

* Co-opts the need for illegal cell phones
* Offers strict restrictions on usage, allowed numbers, feature set
* All calls recorded and archived for forensic review

Your article is very timely as this is a huge problem in the prisons with many public safety implications. Our view is that this problem can be minimized by providing the prisons a legal, safe and secure means to offer what the vast majority of prisoners are really seeking - a way to stay in contact and connected to family and friends while serving their time.

Posted by: meshDETECT | Sep 9, 2011 12:20:26 PM

There is no need for "prison friendly" cell phones. The technology exists to pinpoint the use of a cellphone within any facility. I have seen it used in NY (usually to catch COs using a cellphone rather than inmates).

Posted by: TarlsQtr | Sep 10, 2011 1:21:04 PM

Maybe the 23 cents/min revenue stream is one reason BOP has basically tossed out the 500 mile from home assignment guideline. Assign an inmate 1500 miles away from home and they ensure long distance revenue increases. It also ensures an inmate's family has increased visiting costs, thus less frequent visits, and a more difficult rehab. What's rehab to revenue though, right?

Posted by: Arden | Sep 11, 2011 4:39:08 AM

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