Prisons Struggle with Influx of Cell Phones

A prison warden in Texas recently got a call from an inmate's mother complaining about bad cell-phone reception in her son's maximum-security prison. The mother, it seems, had sent her son a mobile phone, at his request, through a post office box owned by a prison guard. Little did she know that cell phones are illegal contraband in the Texas prison system and that the guard had smuggled the device into the facility for a $400 fee, says John Moriarty, inspector general for the Texas Criminal Justice Department.

In recent years contraband cell phones have become a hot commodity in prisons across the country—and they're posing a serious threat to security, authorities say, especially as phones get smaller and offer technologically advanced features. "It's something we're all looking into," says Moriarty, who has fielded more than 600 cell-phone smuggling cases in the past three years. In Florida, which has the country's third-largest prison system, 109 cell phones have been confiscated over the past year, a 25-30 percent increase from the previous year, and the number is expected to keep growing, according to George Sapp, Florida's assistant secretary for institutions. Seven cell phones were recently confiscated in a major drug bust in the Sunshine State's prison system; investigators believe inmates communicated on cell phones to smuggle crack cocaine and marijuana into one of Florida's higher-security units through prisoner squads working on roads. Contraband phones were found in the prison, at the work camp and in transport vehicles running to and from work sites. Elsewhere, construction materials, sneaky visitors and corrupt prison guards have proved to be reliable means of entry; in New York smugglers have even hidden phone parts inside old typewriters to evade X-ray scrutiny.

Prison officials are warning states that the security risk will continue to grow as cell phones shrink in size and advance technologically. Tiny phones equipped with cameras, Internet access and GPS navigation can help orchestrate prison-break plots, drug trafficking, gang violence and harassment of former victims. The next frontier: thumbnail-size SIM cards, which inmates are now importing à la carte for use with smuggled cell phones. As an added bonus, they can easily be deactivated to avoid detection.

Besides the potentially nefarious uses to which cell phones can be put, prison cell-phone demand may be driven in part by the high rates charged to inmates for landline calls, which are set by telephone companies. In California, where over 1,000 cell phones and BlackBerrys were seized last year, landline access is considered a privilege that inmates have to earn. Texas doesn't even have a landline prison phone system, which only increases the demand for illegal means of communication among inmates. And Florida officials believe that drugs are mainly to blame; those facilities that score highest on inmate drug tests suffer most from cell-phone smuggling.

To combat the problem Texas passed legislation in June to install prison landlines and make possession of mobile devices a crime. Meanwhile, Florida, New York and Oklahoma are pushing for legislation that would make smuggling a felony rather than a misdemeanor. The cheapest solution, says Moriarty, is for prisons to jam the cell-phone signals. But the FCC could respond with big fines, since cell-phone jamming is illegal in the United States. According to the FCC, cell-phone jammers interfere with commercial enterprises' right to the spectrums they have purchased. Frequent prison sweeps may be more practical, but they're also time- and staff-intensive, especially since SIM cards can be nearly impossible to find. The last resort for prison guards? Leave a message after the tone.