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February 15, 2021

"Just Let People Have Cellphones in Prison"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new Slate commentary authored by Hannah Riley.  I recommend the full piece, and here is how it starts:

In 2017, a man named Willie Nash was booked into a Mississippi county jail on a misdemeanor charge.  For reasons that aren’t clear, his cellphone wasn’t confiscated as the law dictated.  When he asked a jailer for a charger, the phone — which he had been using to text his wife — was seized.  Nash was then sentenced to 12 years for possessing the cellphone.  The case went all the way up to the Mississippi Supreme Court, where the 12-year sentence was affirmed. “While obviously harsh,” Justice James D. Maxwell II wrote for the court, “Nash’s twelve-year sentence for possessing a cell phone in a correctional facility is not grossly disproportionate.”  Mr. Nash, a father of three, will be released back to his family in January of 2029, for the crime of texting his wife from jail.

In all federal and state prisons and jails, personal cellphones are classified as contraband — illegal for incarcerated people to possess.  Incarcerated people are allowed to communicate with loved ones via letters, expensive phone calls in a centralized location (done through a prepaid account or collect calls, for a limited amount of time), or sometimes through expensive email and video messages on a prison-issued tablet.  Due to COVID-19, in-person visitation has been halted in most prisons and jails since last March.

These rigid policies isolate incarcerated people and weaken their ties to friends and family. And this isolation radiates harm well beyond each individual.  The vast majority of the millions of people currently incarcerated in this country will, at some point, be released.  Every year, roughly 600,000 people leave prisons across the U.S., and a much higher number cycle in and out of jails.  Roughly 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent....  There is a wealth of research that confirms that the stronger the relationships and connections to loved ones and community, the better a person will fare once they are released from prison or jail.  We’ve known this for a long time.  A study from 1972 noted that, “The central finding of this research is the strong and consistent positive relationship that exists between parole success and maintaining strong family ties while in prison.”  Decades later, the findings remain the same.  “Incarcerated men and women who maintain contact with supportive family members are more likely to succeed after their release,” a 2012 Vera Institute report found.

There is one obvious way to facilitate these community ties: allow incarcerated people to have cellphones.  For more than a decade, jailers and elected officials have attempted to incite a moral panic in the general public around the danger of cellphones, warning that incarcerated people would only use them to organize hits and buy drugs and run gangs on the outside.

It’s true that some incarcerated people have used contraband phones to extort people on the outside.  But targeting the tools rather than the roots of the corruption and violence within prisons is misguided.  A full decade ago, the New York Times conceded that the harsh penalties and increased vigilance weren’t working to keep phones out of prisons: “The logical solution would be to keep all cellphones out of prison. But that is a war that is being lost, corrections officials say.”  That hasn’t changed.  If you want to find a cellphone in prison or jail now, you can.  One former sheriff in South Carolina even allowed detainees in his jail to purchase cheap cellphones from commissary, arguing access to cellphones actually improves safety....

The reality is that prisons and jails are already saturated with cellphones (mostly smuggled in by correctional officers), and the vast majority of people use them in the exact same ways the vast majority use them on the outside: to stay connected.  To stave off boredom.  To learn.  To laugh.

February 15, 2021 at 04:06 PM | Permalink


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