Tuesday Talk*: Are Cellphones The Answer?

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.

46 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: Are Cellphones The Answer?

  1. Bob S

    I’ve received plenty of calls that started with “Hey man I borrowed a phone, I can only talk a couple of minutes”.

    None of them invited me into criminal conspiracy. They were mostly request for cash on the books, news of relatives, general loneliness. Sure phones can be used to further crime, but as you’ve pointed out, those so inclined are already doing their utmost. I ask myself, what purpose does withholding this technology serve? The same as isolation, withholding mail, limiting visiting, it’s punitive. Does the “value” of that punishment outweigh the potential upside of allowing prisoners contact with their communities and families, ties which might well encourage actual rehabilitation to a greater extent than stewing in isolation with other convicts at any rate.

    My take is that I’d be very eager to see the results of a pilot program here, a guarded optimism.

  2. Chris Van Wagner

    I would expect prosecutors and agents to oppose this because it cuts into their recorded evidence. They’ll have to go back to pre-Massiah tactics. That said, it could ease the burden of incarceration on those outside, along with adding pressure on those same outsiders. But the real question is, will inmates now, finally, be able to extend their warranty?? Glory be.

    1. SHG Post author

      Non-crim-lawyers really don’t appreciate the dumb crap clients say on prison phones, but then they don’t get statement notice.

    2. Jeff

      If the inability to surveil calls is an issue, could one not simply set up a couple Stingrays outside the prison walls? It’s not like this technology is a secret any longer.

  3. Skink

    It’s not an answer, but the reason is different.

    Having spent much of my career behind security in many Swamp prisons and jails, cellphones don’t exactly lay around. There aren’t as many as these people think and the studies and investigations don’t support the proposition that they are as common as reported. There’s a reason: they’re found.

    All of us have been somewhere, maybe a bar, where some asshole can’t help but make us part of the conversation with his wife, business partner, dishwasher repair guy or random person. It’s just annoying, especially when the asshole has to use the speaker. Try that with a different cell: a cellmate.

    Most prisoners won’t rat out cellies. A few do it always. They do their time alone in protective custody. If one has a contraband cellphone, getting ratted is inevitable. If all inmates have them, beatings will begin.

      1. Skink

        You know that’s a trick question: the ones they don’t want to find. At least right away.

        But there’s a reality common to phones–they don’t work in corrections unless use is outside or near a window. Behind security, there’s outside, but windows ain’t for inmates. Aside from getting ratted or beaten for annoyance or refusal-to-share, there’s finding a place where the thing works. They get found at a very high rate and rather quickly.

        In the few jails on the cutting edge, giving inmates tablets for internal communications with staff, the wifi password could be purchased, but that’s a problem with staff.

        If they give inmates phones, they must be dumb phones. Otherwise, they’ll waste the day with porn. Worse, they’ll come to this here Hotel.

        1. SHG Post author

          Using cellphones to access porn may not be the subject of polite conversation, but I get it makes a lot of wardens (secretly) happy.

  4. Tom Doniphan

    Will the state or cell phone carrier be co-conspirator when an inmate is given/issued by the county/state /federal government entity a cell phone and, in the of course rare instance, DOES use the cell phone to enable a criminal conspiracy to silence a witness?

  5. DaveL

    Allowing inmates the use of cell phones because because staff are already bringing them in as contraband sets a dangerous precedent. Next you might have to stop searching the body cavities of family members as a condition of seeing their father, brother, or son.

  6. Elpey P.

    This think piece needs to be recalibrated for insurrectionists and white nationalists. It’s 2021 people.

  7. Mark Dwyer

    Why not mandate that the phones now supplied be free?

    If someone making a free call wants to inculpate himself, or threaten a witness while being recorded — so be it.

  8. PML

    I don’t know about the different counties in NY, but a phone call in a NY prison only costs 4.5 cents a minute and none of the money goes to the state.

      1. PML

        My read of your post and what the person you quoted was phone calls are really expensive, merely pointing out that in NY Prisons they are not.

        1. Mark Dwyer

          According to some guy on the internet, NY state prisoners in non-industry jobs make between 10 and 33 cents an hour.

          And they need that money to pay their fees and surcharges, which are assessed in non-prison amounts.

          1. SHG Post author

            As people reading SJ are from various parts of the country, not to mention other countries, irrelevant parochial discussions like PMLs distract from the larger issue and are of little interest to anyone outside his neighborhood. For this reason, it’s best to let it be. But for TT rules, I would have trashed his comment and, even though posted, most readers will see PML’s comment and just figure he’s an asshole.

    1. Miles

      You know that guy, when there is a well-documented, well-known, long-standing problem, who feels some bizarre impulse to say, “Well, I don’t see a problem”? You’re that guy. Nobody likes that guy.

      Not to mention that post was about whether to allow cellphones in prison. FOCUS.

  9. David Meyer-Lindenberg

    Since it’s Tuesday Talk and you can’t stop me, Ima just say I find it entertaining that Slate published an article which, if you only substitute “gun” for “prison cellphone,” could easily have been written by the NRA.

    Anyway, I think allowing for prison cellphones is a good idea. But it’s an idea, mind you, and it might not shake out. In particular, I’m curious about how prisoners would trade in this commodity if it were “legalized” – we know they already do trade – and how prison authorities would respond to a higher chance of being recorded. It’d be cool if some more avant-garde law enforcement types tried it out.

    1. SHG Post author

      The video aspect raises an entirely different spectrum of issues, both for guards and prisoners, not to mention that purveyor of fine food, Nutraloaf.

  10. El_Suerte

    Eventually Securus will figure out that they can make the same money selling proprietary transparently cased prepaid cell phones, while also getting a bunch of ‘prison reform’ points.

    Prison rules are weirdly arbitrary. You can’t even send greeting cards to a number of prisons. Safety concerns are an amazing fig leaf for all manner of degredation.

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