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Cell phones in prison inmates’ hands are a problem. During my term at Ironwood State Prison (2003–2005), inmates did not have cell phones, and I never imagined cell phones’ being used by inmates. Outgoing phone calls were allowed only on prison phones, after evening chow, and only after the inmate had signed up to make a call at a specific time. There were six phones riveted to the walls in the common area. We were allowed ten minutes for one call, and we knew our calls were monitored. Inmates contacting people outside by phone and letters (which were read by prison staff) can be problematic and pose potential serious security risks.

In 2011, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) established a Warden’s Advisory Group (WAG) for intercepting and preventing the movement of cell phones within the prison system. The CDCR saw the potential threat to prison security posed by inmates’ use of cell phones. Thereafter, the California legislature enacted a law to prohibit the introduction of cell phones in prison with the belief that these devises could be weaponized when in the hands of inmates.

What’s the Threat?

In 2009, the California Office of the Inspector General (OIG) published its review of the proliferation of contraband cell phones in the state’s prison system. Contraband in a prison setting includes what you’d expect: controlled substances (drugs) and weapons. So why are iPhones or Androids banned as contraband?

According to the CDCR, “cell phone use by inmates poses a security risk by circumventing the monitoring process in prisons.” The rationale is that “modern cell phones can record video images, record conversations, provide Internet capability and be used to commit crimes.”

The prison cell phone problem extends beyond California. An example of criminal activity using a cell phone comes from Ware State Prison in Georgia. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that an inmate using a cell phone was recorded “directing the sale of tens of thousands of dollars in meth and heroin over three weeks in July 2015.” The report shows the extent of the problem:

Last year, officers seized 22,326 cell phones from inmates and visitors at all 67 Georgia correctional facilities, which include secure prisons and lower-level facilities. Ware State Prison, where [the named inmate] was housed when he was directing drug sales in north Georgia, topped the list with 1,392 cell phones found.

In California, an OIG special report found that “during 2006, correctional officers seized approximately 261 cell phones in the state’s prisons and camps. However, by 2008, that number [had] increased ten-fold to 2,811 with no end in sight.”

The OIG report gives specifics about the threat caused by inmates’ having cell phones:

  • Access to cell phone technology facilitates their [inmates’] ability to communicate amongst themselves and their associates outside of prison.
  • [Access enables inmates] to plan prison assaults, plot prison escapes, and orchestrate a myriad of other illegal activity.
  • These devices can provide an inmate unrestricted and unmonitored access to the Internet, whereby they can communicate with unsuspecting victims, including minors.

California’s Legislative Fix

In October 2011, in response to the findings of the OIG special report and data from the CDCR, the California legislature passed Senate Bill (SB) 26, and Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law. SB 26, entitled “Prisons: Wireless Communication Devices,” acted to add section 4576 to the California Penal Code. In part (a), this section focuses on the sources of inmates’ access to cell phones:

A person who possesses with the intent to deliver, or delivers, to an inmate or ward in the custody of the department any cellular telephone or other wireless communication device or any component thereof, including, but not limited to, a subscriber identity module (SIM card) or memory storage device, is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding 6 months, a fine not to exceed five thousand dollars ($5,000) for each device, or both that fine and imprisonment.

Inmates who are discovered with a cell phone are likewise subject to punishment; 4576(c) provides that “Any inmate who is found to be in possession of a wireless communication device shall be subject to time credit denial or loss of up to 90 days.”

How Do Cell Phones Get into Prison Yards?

I went through scores of body searches during my incarceration and cannot imagine getting a cell phone into a prison yard. I was searched after every visit with family and friends. I was searched every time I returned to my prison yard after meetings with prison administrators as part of my duty as a men’s advisory council (MAC) representative. In that role, I was transported from A-yard at Ironwood State Prison to the administration office within the prison compound. I was never out of the sight of a CDCR correctional officer. However, on the way to and back from these meetings, I was scanned for metal contraband and searched like a listless side of beef for anything I might be bringing into the yard. The search included body cavities. I challenge anyone to pack a cell phone in his or her butt.

It’s unlikely cell phones, or their parts, are brought into prisons by visitors. Visitors are screened with a metal detector and patted down before entering for visitation. Women who have bras with metal underwires have the supports ripped out or are denied visitation rights. Bra underwires are potential stabbing devices.

It’s more likely that cell phones are being smuggled in by correctional officers, medical staff, and noninmate employees who work in prison kitchens and commissaries. I have witnessed staff in each of these categories being handcuffed and walked off the yard for bringing contraband on site. I also know that inmates get their friends and relatives to throw packages over perimeter fences or deposit stuff in garbage cans that inmate garbage-detail workers have access to.

Inmates Are Creative

Let’s revisit the Georgia cell phone situation for a moment. How could 22,326 cell phones be seized from inmates and visitors in one year? While we don’t know what percentage is attributable to each category, I suspect most cell phones were confiscated from visitors who forgot to leave their devices in their cars. This is similar to setting off the alarm during a TSA screening because you forgot to remove your keys from your pocket. It makes sense, and Penal Code section 4576(b)(1) anticipates such an error:

If a person visiting an inmate or ward in the custody of the department, upon being searched or subjected to a metal detector, is found to be in possession of a cellular telephone or other wireless communication device, . . . that device or component shall be subject to confiscation but shall be returned on the same day the person visits the inmate or ward, unless the cellular telephone or other wireless communication device or any component thereof is held as evidence in a case where the person is cited for a violation of subdivision (a) [stated above].

So, what’s going on in Georgia? How are so many cell phones getting into its prison yards?

Well, they literally fall from the sky. Atlantic Journal-Constitution reporter Rhonda Cook, in her July 25, 2017, article entitled “Drone Carrying Cell Phone, Marijuana Crashes in Prison Yard” reported that “a drone that crashed into the yard of [Georgia’s] Washington State Prison was loaded with cell phones, tobacco, oxycodone and marijuana.” More specifically, a spokeswoman for the prison detailed the haul: “It was carrying four Samsung Galaxy J1 cellphones, 7.8 ounces of tobacco spilt between two baggies, a USB charger cable, a pound of marijuana divided into 16 individual bags and 31 C-230 oxycodone pills along with some broken piece[s] of pills.”

Inmates are resourceful and constantly finding ways of employing end-justifies-the-means forms of problem solving. It’s always the government’s challenge to stay ahead of the game.

California Ups the Tech Ante

I agree that inmates’ access to cell phones is potentially dangerous. Anyone who plans criminal activity using the prison phone system risks being overheard; therefore, the sky’s the limit for communicating criminal plans using an unmonitored cell phone at will.

In his December 18, 2016, AP report entitled “California Tries Again to Thwart Prison Cellphone Smuggling,” Don Thompson provides a good resource on the details of California’s response to cell phone calls originating from prison yards. The report outlines how the CDCR is fighting the cell phone problem at the points of acquisition and of ultimate usage: The CDCR “is installing 272 more metal detectors, 68 X-ray machines to scan packages, 103 low-dose X-ray scanners, 170 hidden surveillance cameras, 34 devices to decrypt and analyze cellphones, and 272 scanners that detect magnetic signals.”

I don’t always agree with how the CDCR restricts inmates’ conduct. On this issue I do.

I appreciate your comments and points of view. Feel free to suggest topics for future discussion.

Image courtesy of 123rf


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