The recent rise in smartphones raises larger issues for prisoners and their advocates, who say the phones are not necessarily used for criminal purposes. In some prisons, a traditional phone call is prohibitive, costing $1 per minute in many states. And cellphones can help some offenders stay better connected with their families.
Mike, the Georgia inmate who was part of the recent strike, said he used his to stay in touch with his son.That's a prescient observation and IMO probably where many prisons may head in the future as smart phones become a more ubiquitous part of the culture, though there will be a long slog between there and here. Most cell phone smuggling is not for nefarious purposes, it's to stay in contact with friends and family. And though it certainly helps to install landlines, as TDCJ has recently done, that's still expensive for families and doesn't include a level of functionality that increasingly young people (who are overrepresented in prisons) have grown accustomed to in ways that, in years past, the television (long a staple in prison common rooms) was the central media experience for prior generations.
“When he gets off the school bus, I’m on the phone and I talk to him,” he said in an interview on his contraband cellphone. “When he goes to bed, I’m on the phone and I talk to him.”
Some groups are encouraging prisons to embrace new technology while managing risks. Inmates are more likely to successfully re-enter society if they maintain relationships with friends and families, said David Fathi, director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It shows that even if they are closed institutions, prisons are still part of the larger society,” Mr. Fathi said. “They can’t be forever walled off from technological changes.”
And in a world where hundreds of apps are introduced each day by developers hoping to tap new markets, a pool of prisoners with smartphones can seem an attractive new market, despite the implications.
“It’s a pure business opportunity,” said Hal Goldstein, the publisher of iPhone Life magazine. He predicted that games would be big, but so would the ability to download news and books.
“People outside of prison become addicted to their phones,” Mr. Goldstein said. “Can you imagine if you had nothing but time on your hands?”
It's happening, anyway. Smart phones are being smuggled into prisons in significant numbers. Staff can only catch a fraction, and that number will likely decline if the agency follows through on its plan to cut the number of staff to reduce its budget while keeping open all 112 prison units. Searching for cell phones and other contraband requires warm, uniformed bodies to perform the task. Staff reductions would in all likelihood open the floodgates to contraband smuggling.
Part of the solution could end up being to supply inmates with smart phones so that the state can control the practice - allow them to be checked out for a few hours at a time as an incentive for good behavior, with some sort of specialized, limited, interchangeable (or re-programmable) SIM chip that only allows calls or emails to the handful of people on the inmate's approved visitation list. That would also stop prisoners from passing phones around for use by others (e.g., the phone with which Richard Tabler called state Sen. John Whitmire was apparently also used by many other death row inmates). Let people do games or other Smart-Phonesque activities while the phones are checked out. The phones should record each call, text, email, etc. for downloading when they turn the unit back in.
Right now, TDCJ inmates get no internet access, and most inmate blogs you see are snail mail letters uploaded by family and friends. But I don't see a huge downside to letting prisoners update Facebook, blogs, etc., on the condition that they answer yes to a friend request from a TDCJ monitor authorized to track content (or follow up on reported leads) for improper posting. There'd probably need to be some way to disallow making Facebook friends with fellow prisoners to (rightfully) limit unauthorized prisoner-to-prisoner communication. I'm no computer whiz, but it seems likely a program could be written to track certain keywords, gang references, intra-TDCJ friend requests and other banned content.
Certainly some people would continue to smuggle cell phones in for nefarious purposes, but reducing the volume would reduce revenue and power of the smuggling networks bringing them in. Beyond that, there would be a huge security payoff: By authorizing controlled access to Smart Phones and limiting their use by limiting their functionality, it would also limit unauthorized uses, such as those that spawned the organizing of a multi-unit prisoner strike in Georgia. Again from the Times:
The Georgia prison strike, for instance, was about things prisoners often complain about: They are not paid for their labor. Visitation rules are too strict. Meals are bad.That's a worst-case security nightmare for prison managers, just a step or two from the coordination of mass escapes of the type recently seen in Nuevo Laredo.
But the technology they used to voice their concerns was new.
Inmates punched in text messages and assembled e-mail lists to coordinate simultaneous protests, including work stoppages, with inmates at other prisons. Under pseudonyms, they shared hour-by-hour updates with followers on Facebook and Twitter. They communicated with their advocates, conducted news media interviews and monitored coverage of the strike.
I'm not sure it's possible to keep smart phones and other contraband out of prisons because the demand is great and prisoners have a lot of time on their hands to figure out how to circumvent any security arrangement. If giving limited, monitored smart-phone access as an incentive for good behavior reduced smuggling and the chances such technology would spawn disruption, to me that makes more sense than an enforcement-only approach that, in practice, lets the