Cellphones were always deemed contraband in jails and prisons. Initially, there were two obvious and one less-than-obvious reason for this. Cellphones allowed prisoners to communicate freely with the outside world, enabling them to engage in all manner of nefarious conduct. Requiring prisoners to talk on prison phones, the ones with the huge signs overhear that state “ALL CALLS ARE RECORDED,” still manages to provide prosecutors with confessions galore, because reasons.
And then there’s the profit sharing incentive from the economic rape of a captive audience by businesses like Securus, which simultaneously take the burden off of prisons from managing telephone logistics while charging prisoners’ families obscene rates because they can.
Hannah Riley argues that there is no sound reason not to allow prisoners to have cellphones.
In all federal and state prisons and jails, personal cellphones are classified as contraband—illegal for incarcerated people to possess. Incarcerated people are allowed to communicate with loved ones via letters, expensive phone calls in a centralized location (done through a prepaid account or collect calls, for a limited amount of time), or sometimes through expensive email and video messages on a prison-issued tablet. Due to COVID-19, in-person visitation has been halted in most prisons and jails since last March.
But this isn’t just a COVID-generated issue, even though the pandemic has greatly exacerbated the problem.
These rigid policies isolate incarcerated people and weaken their ties to friends and family. And this isolation radiates harm well beyond each individual. The vast majority of the millions of people currently incarcerated in this country will, at some point, be released. Every year, roughly 600,000 people leave prisons across the U.S., and a much higher number cycle in and out of jails. Roughly 2.7 million children in the U.S. have an incarcerated parent.
If you want people to come out of prison and re-integrate into society as a law-abiding person, maintaining family relationships is critical. What do you think happens to people when they walk out of the prison doors? Where do they live? How do they eat, bathe, get jobs? If family ties are broken or fade away, they have no one. Then what?
It’s not that Riley ignores the problem that cellphones in the hands of prisoners can be used for bad, but that there is more going on in real life than this argument covers.
It’s true that some incarcerated people have used contraband phones to extort people on the outside. But targeting the tools rather than the roots of the corruption and violence within prisons is misguided. A full decade ago, the New York Times conceded that the harsh penalties and increased vigilance weren’t working to keep phones out of prisons: “The logical solution would be to keep all cellphones out of prison. But that is a war that is being lost, corrections officials say.” That hasn’t changed. If you want to find a cellphone in prison or jail now, you can.
There are two curious considerations stemming from guards bringing cellphones into prisons as a side hustle. The first is that they’re there already, and the sky hasn’t fallen, at least no more than it did before, when co-conspirators had to come for a prison visit to get their marching orders. The second is that allowing cellphones would end the problems of guards selling cellphones to inmates, leaving them only with drugs and protection to make a buck.
One former sheriff in South Carolina even allowed detainees in his jail to purchase cheap cellphones from commissary, arguing access to cellphones actually improves safety.
Prison is boring, and idle hands are the devil’s, well, you know. With a lot of time to kill, cellphones offer prisoners a way to spend time less destructively.
“This adds another method of safety to our facility because it takes away the mischief of the inmates sitting back there 24 hours a day with nothing to do,” he told a local TV station. “Fighting. Different things. Confrontation with corrections officers.”
To the extent cellphones are an evil, they’re already ubiquitous in prisons, so the evil is already happening. It could be argued that the better solution is to stop screws from bringing in cellphones, as well as other contraband, but history suggests that’s far easier said than done. And as long as they’re already in prison, what would it hurt to make them available to everyone rather than contraband, an easy excuse to toss somebody in the hole in case one was needed?
Of course, this would be terrible for those businesses whose model is based on charging outrageous fees to prisoners. Brings a tear to your eye, right?
So is Riley right, and is it time to allow prisoners to have cellphones, or is this a dangerous, terrible idea that will facilitate crime, whether by the prisoners or Securus?
*Tuesday Talk rules apply.