contraband cellphones prevalent in prisons and jails

Contraband cellphones have become one of the most important issues for prison and jail administrators.  Contraband cellphone confiscations in Mississippi and California have increased about six-fold from 2007 to 2010.  Despite the sharp increase in confiscations, in Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman) in August, 2010, the average number of contraband cellphones confiscated monthly amounted to only about 14% of the total stock of contraband cellphones in the prison.  At Parchman and at Brockbridge Correctional Facility in Maryland, managed access technology detected one active contraband cellphone per roughly nine prisoners.[1] That’s about the usual ratio for authorized wireline inmate telephones officially installed in prisons.

Prisoners describe contraband cellph0nes as prevalent in prisons.  According to a prisoner in a state prison in Georgia:

Almost everybody has a phone. Almost every phone is a smartphone. Almost everybody with a smartphone has a Facebook.

A prisoner recently released from a state prison in California described a major change in communication device use:

The prison system is mad because nobody uses the phones on the wall [authorized inmate phones] anymore…. I think the only time people would use the wall phones was to call their people [outside prison] and get another cellphone.

Another recently released prisoner explained:

for every person doing something illegal [with a contraband cellphone], there are hundreds of guys who just want to talk to their families and keep in touch with what’s going on back home. … They’re talking to their mamas, their wives, looking at photos, checking on their Facebook pages.[2]

Because calling costs on contraband cell phones are much lower than calling costs on authorized inmate telephone systems, inmates can afford to make more calls to family and friends.  Contraband cellphones thus keep prisoners occupied and calm, and help prisoners maintain outside relationships important for their re-integration into society upon release. However, because contraband cellphones lack the call control and call recording technologies of inmate phone systems, contraband cellphones increase public safety risks and lessen forensic resources for prosecuting crimes. In addition, prisons and jails receive a share of revenue from authorized inmate telephone calls. Jail and prison revenue from inmate telephone calls probably amounted to more than half a billion dollars in 2010. Given the current, very difficult fiscal positions of many local and state governments, reductions in inmate telephone revenue is a significant concern.

Key challenges for suppressing contraband communications technologies in prisons and jails are costs, technological change, and use incentives.  Managed access systems can block calls from contraband cellphones.  The managed access system installed at Parchman cost about $850,000.  Managed access systems that are being installed in the two other Mississippi state prisons are expected to cost about $2.1 million.[3]  Installing managed access in all 33 California state prisons is expected to cost from $16.5 million to $33 million.[4]  Rapid development of wireless communication technology — 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi, LTE, etc — is likely to create continual suppression technology costs and challenges. If those system costs are incorporated into the cost for inmate calls over the authorized inmate telephone system, that will further increase incentives to use contraband communication devices.

The 2011 National Public Safety Technology conference featured interesting discussions of cutting-edge contraband communication device suppression technologies.  Contraband cellphones have significant implications for system economics and prisoner re-entry.  Serious discussion of these issues is also needed.

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Data: contraband cellphone confiscations and steady-state contraband model (Excel version)

Related: prisoners keen to use phones


[1] Managed access technology was tested in December, 2009, at the Brockbridge Correctional Facility in Jessup, MD.  It detected 82 cell phones attempting to make calls at a prison with an average daily population of 640 men.  A managed access system installed at the Mississsippi State Penitentiary at Parchman in August, 2010 detected on average about 400 contraband cell phones attempting to make calls during that month.  The average daily population of Parchman during that month was 3,469 prisoners.  See Maryland, Non-Jamming Cell Phone Pilot Summary, p. 4; Casey Joseph, Tecore Networks, 2011 National Public Safety Technology Conference, Session 4, video time 26:15; Maryland DOC Annual Report 2010, p. 30; Mississippi Operation Cellblock, p. 33; Mississippi Department of Corrections, Daily Inmate Population, August 2010.

[2] The above quotes from prisoners are from: Kim Severson and Robbie Brown, “Outlawed, Cellphones are Thriving in Prisons,” New York Times, Jan. 2, 2011; Sandy Banks, “Allowing phones in the cells might be a sound call,” Los Angeles Times, Mar. 26, 2011; Jack Dolan, “Prisons seek ally in crackdown on cellphones,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 11, 2011.

[3] Ken North, Mississippi Dept. of Corrections, 2011 National Public Safety Technology Conference, Session 2, video time 46:07.

[4] Dolan, “Prisons seek ally,” reporting statement of Matthew Cate, Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

One thought on “contraband cellphones prevalent in prisons and jails”

  1. Great summary of the drivers and challenges relating to contraband cellphones in prisons. I believe that one key solution to this problem has been ignored thus far and that is for prisons to offer a secure and controlled cell phone service to prisoners. Such a service does exist and is offered by my firm.

    If, as you quote above, “for every person doing something illegal [with a contraband cellphone], there are hundreds of guys who just want to talk to their families and keep in touch with what’s going on back home” then the contraband value of these devices can be significantly reduced by offering a sanctioned cell phone service. As the contraband value of cell phones is reduced, fewer guards will be willing to risk their careers and jail time to smuggle cell phones into their facilities. The potential payoff won’t be worth the risks.

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