Monday, January 03, 2011

'Outlawed, cell phones are thriving in prison'

The New York Times takes on one of state Sen. John Whitmire's favorite topics with a feature on cell phones in prison with the same title as this post. The article takes a different twist toward the end, however, suggesting that one solution might be to embrace the trend instead of fighting an expensive, losing battle.
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.

“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?” 
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.

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.

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.
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.

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 free black market provide phones in prison to seemingly just about anyone who can pay for one.


Prison Doc said...

Improved smartphone access seems like such a nutty idea that I am suprised that it is even honored by a spot on this site. I think that persons who don't work in prison really have no concept of what the concern about cell phones is--it isn't to keep people from talking to their families. It's to cut down on contraband, escapes, gang violence, and other things that prison staff have to deal with all the time.

I am not aware of any inmate who has problems contacting their family, unless the family won't take their calls; I do not think that legitimate communication is a problem.

Prison is supposed to be punishment, the state has no obligation to offer state of the art communication, facebooking, blogging, etc. Of all the things that need improving in criminal justice, cell phones don't make the list. Might as well be offering "concealed carry" training.

Anonymous said...

I think Grits and the ACLU crowd would be just as happy not sending anyone to prison! Just counsel criminals, endeavor to better "understand" them, pat them on the back, and send them back into society with the promise never to offend again!

The Ruiz reforms ordered by Judge Justice were a joke. If anything we need to go back to the days of chain gangs, hoe squads, etc.. It's way too easy for inmates now to just "do their time." There is no real deterrent value to prisons anymore. If prisons were the miserable, oppressive places that they used to be, we could very easily shutter a bunch of the facilities (something Grits consistently advocates) and save the taxpayers tons of money.

I'm not sure this cell phone discussion is the most ridiculous proposal ever addressed on this blog, but it's easily in the top 5.

Don said...

If you're going to be a straight punishment advocate, then you need to advocate for mandatory life sentences for everyone sent to prison. Because if you have to let them out at some point, and you haven't done anything except "punish" them, you have done more harm than good, to both the prisoner and society Punishment alone isn't a "deterrent" either. Criminals are not statisticians, weighing carefully the consequences before making a reasoned decision to commit a crime. To make hardened criminals out of potential contributors to society only satisfies your thirst for vengeance. Punishment is a factor in behavioral modification, but it's not the whole thing. Please don't think I don't know that both of you wrote me off as another bleeding heart thug hugger with the first sentence, so I really don't know why I bother.

Scott, this is off the subject, but you did mention the budget cuts and TDCJ wanting to address it with staff cuts and no closures. You are familiar with the Billy Clayton Detention Center at Littlefield. Apparently they are hinging some hopes on Avalon getting a contract with TDCJ to open an ISF there. Why would anybody contemplate opening another facility of any kind, at this point? Especially since ISF's are supposed to be program intensive. Wouldn't you say this is a pipe dream, or am I missing something?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Prison Doc, I'm for reducing smart phone access that enables "contraband, escapes, gang violence, and other things that prison staff have to deal with all the time." That's what you've got right now under existing policies!

By contrast, consider the new secure phones recently installed. If they plan an escape, violence, etc., over that, it's recorded and frequently monitored. (And in fact, people have been prosecuted based on those recordings.) Why wouldn't you want the same security precautions for smart phones? If the enforcement only approach were working, after two years of supposed "zero tolerance" at TDCJ, your argument might be stronger.

"Prison is supposed to be punishment," but maintaining connections to the outside world facilitates rehabilitation and reentry. The feds gave prisoners email access during the Bush Administration for exactly that reason. This isn't too much different than that, just a little further down the same technological road.

How long after TVs became popular were they first installed in prison common rooms? And why is this different? Some folks view it as a luxury but it's also a carrot to encourage good behavior and keep prisoners occupied in ways that benefit the system, especially when its shortstaffed.

9:32, I don't mind requiring prisoners to work, btw, but those work squads are MORE labor intensive for the agency because they must be supervised. If TDCJ plans to cut 7,300 staff but keep all 112 prisons open, I don't see your suggestion being implemented even if Ruiz magically disappeared tomorrow. And as always, if you find what you read here "ridiculous," nobody forced you to visit or read.

Don, it's remotely possible there's a method to their madness. One way to reduce long-term prison sentences is to expand ISFs to implement short-term corrective punishments for lesser violations instead of only having revocation as an option, so that could be one strategies the Lege uses, certainly for parolees and also possibly for less serious probation violators. Just guessing. Nobody really knows, at this point, is the only thing that's for sure.

BTW, Don didn't say so but he works in a prison, "bleeding heart thug hugger" or no.

Anonymous said...

Personally, as a convicted felon, I would have rather simply had email access to my family while I was incarcerated. I didn't utilize the phones that were provided in the dorm because the setup procedure was a huge pain and the cost was simply too high for my wife to afford on her own while I was locked up. Additionally, the only way you can access the phone system is if the person you are calling has a landline, which we did not. We had, and still have, only a cell phone. However, email would have been much better than regular mail. Having been in the IT industry for the past 15 years though, I don't even think that would be feasible.
As for Anonymous 9:32 am, you are correct in that most of the inmates "just do their time." However, the real deterrent for me has been the inability to find work AFTER being released. Project RIO is a joke unless you're completely unskilled and I have yet to find a company that will even discuss my past. As soon as I disclose that I have a felony conviction the conversation is cut off completely. For as much talk as there is about reintegrating felons into society, I'm really not seeing anything that has been worthwhile. I've been out 6 months. I've had 6 interviews, and 3 job offers. All job offers were rescinded as soon as I answered yes to the question of a past conviction. No discussion, no "let's talk about it", nothing. So you're correct. Being sent to prison is not a deterrent. But not being able to go back to work could be a major reason why people return. I know that if it had not been for the fact that I was married and that my wife was here upon my release, I'd be living on the streets today.
While I was incarcerated I had access to many things that I shouldn't have had access to. A cell phone was one of them. And they were easier to come by than tobacco. If the phone system was easier to use and cheaper, it might actually cut down on the smuggling of cell phones.

Anonymous said...

"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."

Maybe but maybe not.........

Directional cell phone detection becomes a reality

Don said...

Scott, I understand that new ISF's would be in order, from a rational point of view, and agree that they could reduce incarceration numbers in the long run. But my point is that TDCJ, left to their own devices, would sooner open a new straight punishment prison than an ISF. I agree that there may be a chance that the Lege will override the powers at TDCJ, and incorporate some sensible solutions, but it will be some months before we know that. Meanwhile, Littlefield city fathers are trying to console their overtaxed citizens with the "Help is on the way" cry. Maybe, but I still doubt it. BTW, I'm retired now. Did work in prisons and other TDCJ connected jobs for 25 years. Thanks.

Robert Langham said...

Per Nequam: Most crimes could be punished by just convicting the person of a felony- at that point, they live the rest of their life as a sub-citizen. Forget bothering with prison. Just ruin the rest of their lives and cut them loose to try and deal with it.

Anonymous said...

Anyone that can say they are not aware of any inmate who has problems contacting their family has no real knowledge of prisoner relationships. Prisoners are primarily using phones to stay in contact with their families and loved ones. Maybe they are there for punishment, but allowing them to contact families more regularly builds stronger bonds, which will help the prisoner when he/she is released. Out of sight out of mind. Families drop off and the prisoner loses that support. A cell phone allows them to maintain it. Once a prisoner has no one outside they will likely stop caring about behaving as well. A 3g criminal may receive good time but it means nothing for his/her sentence, so as punishment all you can take is contact visits and put commissary restrictions. If contact with family is lost then why would they care if you take that away? They yearn for outside contact and it's in everyone's best interest to give them at least a little. Those new phones are a joke. You have to have a home phone - who has that anymore? It constantly disconnects and can not be used during the lockdowns, which are frequent and lengthy. They can't hear on the phones, it's difficult to get out and they are often installed in areas where there is a lot of traffic and noise - like the dayroom NEXT to the TV! Ignorance and disconnection really shows in some of these comments.

9:32 Do you have knowledge of prison life? I assure you it's no cake walk and people are not just doing time. Sounds like you would be happy to know it still is quite a miserable place to be. I know you will be really excited when those people that have been in that miserable place move next door to you and they probably will at least one day live within a few miles of your home. Most will be released, who do you want to come home someone that is angry about their treatment or someone rehabilitated? It is punishment to be locked away for years at a time. Why do so many almost suggest torture?

jdgalt said...

I still believe the best solution to this problem is purely technical: build a cell site on prison grounds, and make its signal strong enough that any phone inside the walls will see that site and no other. (Maybe also put a Faraday cage around the walls, so we don't mess with cell use outside the prison grounds.) Then program the site so that (1) the Warden's office gets notified of every attempted call, whether to, from, or within the walls, including exact location of the cell phone; (2) no call goes through unless the cell phone has been registered with the Warden, and (3) the Warden's office can listen in or even record every call. (For phones that have these features, text messages, photos, and Internet access would all count as "calls" for (1)-(3).)

Result: contraband phones become useless unless the Warden chooses to let them operate so that he can listen in.

Angee said...

Someone here is not aware that we still have hoe squads. The overseer still watches over them from horseback with his weapon within reach.
The cellphone war is like the war on drugs. We can spend until hell freezes over and the problem will still exist. The alternative is to switch the advantage.
A felon label is a life sentence. It can't always be avoided but we eagerly place labels that successfully remove people from the work force. Tax dollars coming out of as many pockets as possible makes a positive impact on the economy. We stick someone in prison for 10 years to make them pay for a crime. The costs come out of our pockets so who is really being punished?
I see the way our money is spent and would hate for our leaders to take charge of my checkbook. Basic economics is completely missing.
Longer prison terms help insure there is no family left on the outside to help an inmate returning to society. There are a million ways to cut our own throats and we use them all.

Anonymous said...

Angee, 12:03pm. Yes, there still are hoe squads. However, unless you have a substantial enough sentence, you won't necessarily be assigned to one of those squads. People in state jails do not work. They are simply housed in dorms, some up to 2 years.

Anonymous said...

As long as you have crooked guards, you'll have cellphones in jail. And there will always be crooked guards. Spending a ton of MY cash to fund some antenna/smart phone scheme won't change diddly. A War on Cellphones is going to accomplish the same thing as the War on Drugs, i.e. not a damned thing. I would think this would be obvious to anyone who's paid attention to these kinds of things over the last few years, but clearly not.

As for 9:32's comments about harsher prison conditions, I would simply like to wish you a long stay in a prison someday. I reckon then you'd be changing your (ignorant) tune.

Anonymous said...

A frind of mine says you can get a cell phone in ferguson unit by paying certain guards 600.00. I dontknow if that is true or not. I am not in there, but my friend is. He says that the guards have p.o. boxes that you send the money to for them.

Anonymous said...

The ham is the same way. This prison cell phone business is a lucrative business, and I think people would be surprised at who all is making money from this. It’s going to get better, with fewer staff and more prisons. Shame an operation like this couldn’t ipo. If Texas continues its costly war on minorities and more people like 9:32 are allowed to spew their idiocracy the Texas prison contraband is going to be big business. Fantastic opportunities for felons who can’t get real tax payer jobs and have to earn tax free money.

Anonymous said...

9:32 your comments are the most ridiculous issue on this blog

Angee said...

The employment situation has a lot of people begging for work. When 500 people apply for 5 jobs it is easy to turn down someone with a felony conviction. It is a brick wall for masses of unemployed and this fact should be drummed home to any inmate hoping for parole. If no outside help is available they will end up on the street. There have been instances where I have suggested a serve-all in order to get every meal that was promised by the state. Some things are worse than prison. Being homeless and hungry during the winter is one of them.
Pay no attention to 9:32. The nurse passes out the meds at 9 PM and things tend to get quiet. The hatred is put into a medicated sleep for a few hours.

Con-Care said...

Too many of these Grits commentators still think that prison is for punishment. WRONG. Prison is for rehabilitation and public safety. Prisons must be run like recreational camps or educational institutions: 1) Camps with plenty of "hands on" activities(crafts/sports/music,etc.) for those who need constant confinement but who reject formal education. 2) Educational Institutions with adjusted curriculums meeting diverse needs that train for professions or satisfying lives.
Damaged people end up in prison: they do not end up there by choice.

Angee said...

Cute. Prison IS supposed to be about rehabilitation. Removing people from society is the punishment. Incarceration is not a license for brutality. Treating inmates like animals for 20 years puts a damper on them acting like humans when they return to society.
TX warehouses people. We have a ton of skilled workers locked up. Someone that knew all about computers will come out with far less skills than when they went in. Many life skills classes could be brought in from the outside by volunteers.Perhaps some of the required classes could be approached in the same manner. More education always leads to less crime.Preparing inmates for outside life should be a top priority if success is what we want.

Anonymous said...

I guess the endless debate is punishment versus rehabilitation. How long should punishment be? An inmate that has been locked up for 20+ years with NO disciplinary blots, has taken both vocational and life enhancing courses still sits and rots. The parole board calls it "nature of the crime". Since that never changes, how long should we warehouse these people? In all these years, one would think there would have been ample instances to exhibit further anti-social behavior. I guess I just don't understand what we really require from a grow old,sick and cost the state hospice care or release him/her to family with parole oversight, let them become productive tax paying members of the state. As I said I don't think Texas or its penal agencies have a clue what or where they are going with this endless debate.

Anonymous said...

"Most cell phone smuggling is not for nefarious purposes, it's to stay in contact with friends and family."


Brian Byrne said...


I read with interest your interview on the challenges prisons face with the rising problems of smuggled cellphones. Among the many crime related problems these phones create, they also have the impact of reducing the revenue cash-strapped facilities receive on the commissions from in-jail payphone use. As such, prisons are seeking a solution that restricts the use of contraband phones yet allows them to recover their lost payphone revenue.

My firm, meshIP ( has partnered with a local company called Cellhire ( to create a "managed" cell phone solution for prisons. This solution offers correctional facilities the following benefits:

* Co-opts the need for illegal cell phones
* Strict restrictions on usage, allowed numbers, feature set
* All calls recorded and archived for review

If you are interested in learning more or seeing a demonstration, please let me know.

You article was very timely as this is a huge problem in the prisons with many public safety implications. Our view is that this problem can be minimized by providing the prisons a legal, safe and secure means to offer what the vast majority of prisoners are really seeking - a way to stay in contact and connected to family and friends while serving their time.


Brian Byrne
Managing Partner
meshIP, LLC

Anonymous said...

Just let the guys use phones. Other states allow inmates to call people even if there isn't a landline. Most people don't have a landline these days. I know I don't. TDCJ makes things so hard on these guys AND their families. No conjugal visits. No calls, no nothing. GRRRRRRR!!! Rehabilitate the guys!