Mobile phones in prison

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In most prisons, inmates are forbidden from possessing mobile phones due to their ability to communicate with the outside world and other security issues. Mobile phones are one of the most smuggled items into prisons. They provide inmates the ability to make and receive unauthorized phone calls, send email and text messages, use social media, and follow news pertaining to their case, among other forbidden uses.[1][2]

Reasons cell phones are prohibited[edit]

Security concerns are often cited for why cell-phones are forbidden in prisons.[citation needed]

Cellphones in prisons have been used to organize work stoppages for prison labor between prisons.[3] Forced Penal labor in the United States is a common practice.

Cell phones in prison are used by prisoners to communicate with family and loved ones. Prisoners can be isolated and prison phone calls can be expensive. The rates are controversial.[4] and the prisons get profits from the phone calls. Prisons have a profit motive to ban cell phones.[5]

Methods of smuggling[edit]

Most mobile phones are smuggled in by prison staff, who often do not have to go through security as rigorously as visitors. Security of staff is often less intense because this would be time-consuming on the part of the staff, union prison employees are paid for this time, and it would increase the overall cost of operations.[6] More rarely, they are smuggled in by visitors, who must undergo tougher security checks, by inmates who are permitted to leave, or by outsiders who establish contact with inmates alongside the prison fence.

Once inside prison walls, the devices end up in the hands of inmates who purchase them with cash, which is also contraband in most prisons. Black market prices vary by prison, and can be up to $1000 USD.[1]

Uses by prisoners[edit]

While some prisoners use their mobile devices simply for harmless communication or web browsing, others use them for illegal activity. These may include gang control, taunting witnesses, planning escapes, or arrangement of other serious crimes. Prisoners may also use smart phones to gather intelligence on prison staff and to coordinate clandestine activity within the facility.[1]

Not all inmates use mobile phones for harmful purposes. Many inmates use them to hold innocuous conversations with family and friends.[7] In South Carolina in September 2012, an inmate using an illegal mobile phone alerted authorities about an officer being held hostage, leading to that officer's rescue.[8]

Combating mobile phones in prisons[edit]

Laws have been passed in various jurisdictions, placing penalties on inmates who possess mobile devices as well as staff who smuggle them in. Inmate penalties range from loss of privileges and behavior credits to additional sentencing. Staff penalties range from disciplinary action to job loss to criminal charges.[9]

Consideration has been given to using cell phone jammers inside of prison walls to render them ineffective. The practice of jamming cell phone signals is illegal in the United States. Exceptions to this law have been considered for prisons, though there is concern that a cell phone could be a guard's lifeline in a crisis, and other rescuers may need to use them for communication.[6][10][11]

Some places are using an experimental technology of managed communications that blocks the communications of inmates while continuing to allow that of others.[6] This Managed Access System (MAS) technology was first deployed at Mississippi State Penitentiary in 2010 by Tecore Networks.[12]

Special dogs have been used to sniff for cell phones coming into prison walls. Mobile phones have a unique scent, and these dogs have been trained to detect it.[1]

One solution would be to enable the correctional facility to automatically detect and locate contraband 2G/3G/4G and WiFi mobile devices thereby enabling the facility staff to confiscate the phone and neutralize the threat completely.

An automatic 24/7 detect and locate solution such as this bypasses the weaknesses inherent to jamming (e.g., phones of facility workers can be jammed); managed access solutions (surrounding neighborhoods can be affected by the "bleed" from these systems preventing bystanders from making calls and/or not all makes of phones are subject to call intercept); and phone sniffing dogs (this solution only works when the dogs are patrolling). New solutions have been introduced to the market that provide such automated 24/7 detect and locate capabilities.

Another solution is the use of ferromagnetic cell phone detectors. This technology detects the presence of the ferrous metal components (antenna, vibrator, speaker) that are in cell phones. The reliance is then not on the location of signals, but in the recognition of the physical phone itself which cannot be masked by internalizing or hiding on the person.[13]

In February 2014, the government of Honduras enacted legislation mandating that the cellular providers in Honduras block their own signals at the nine national prisons throughout the country, in order to eliminate the extortion and kidnapping schemes that were being run by inmates within the prisons.[14]


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