Lentis/Cell Phones in Prison


Cell phones are used by prisoners to keep in touch with loved ones; however, they are also used to plan escapes, harm witnesses, and commit other crimes. As the number of cell phones in prisons continues to rise, it is important to understand the social impact this contraband has both inside and outside of prison. This chapter provides a brief history of the issue and evidence through case studies. It then examines the legislature concerning cell phone procurement and use in prison. In addition, the pros and cons of cell phones in prison are addressed by considering relevant social groups involved.


Cell phones in prison have been declared contraband because they allow inmates to continue committing crimes.[1] [2] While some prisoners use cell phones as a convenient, low-cost way to stay connected with family and friends, others use cell phones as a means to coordinate riots, drug deals, and other crimes both inside and outside of prison. [1] The introduction of the smartphone with its internet access to phone directories, maps and photos has increased the ease of intimidation, crime organization, and communication for prisoners.[2]

In the past 3 years, the number of cell phones found in federal prisons has more than tripled.[3] Between 2008 and 2010, the number of cell phones seized by the Federal Bureau of Prisons increased from 1,774 to 8,656. [3] With such a drastic increase in the number of cell phones in 2 years, this growing security risk should be addressed through a variety of countermeasures and prevention techniques.

Case StudiesEdit

Using Cell Phones to Coordinate RiotsEdit

First Command of the Capital (PPC) is one of Brazil's largest prison gangs and uses cell phones to coordinate riots inside and outside the prisons of São Paulo, Brazil.[4] For example, in 2006, prison officials met to discuss the transfer of several inmates to a remote, high security prison to weaken PCC's power.[4] A spy in the room who quickly relayed the information to the PPC. Within hours of the meeting, the PCC used cell phones to coordinate the prisoners and launch riots inside prisons and throughout Brazil.[4] These riots lasted about a week, killing 170 people.[4]

Using Cell Phones to Intimidate VictimsEdit

Richard Tabler, a convicted murderer on death row, used a cell phone to make a threatening call to John Whitmire, a Texas state senator and chair of the senate's Criminal Justice Committee. Tabler told Whitmire, "I know your daughters’ names. I know how old they are. I know where they live."[5] Whitmire called the state prison system's inspector general to express his concern as to how a prisoner accessed his number as well as his family's personal information.[5] In response, Governor Rick Perry ordered all state prisons to be locked down and all the inmates searched.[5] 128 phones and thousands of chargers, batteries and SIM cards were found.[5]

Using Cell Phones to Arrange a MurderEdit

Carl Lackl witnessed a Baltimore murder and testified against the accused killer, Patrick Byers.[5] While awaiting trial in Baltimore's City Detention Center, Byers acquired a cell phone.[5] Byers obtained Lackl's name, address, and phone number and texted this information to an outside contact, offering $2,500 to "get rid of Lackl".[5] On July 2, 2007, this contact and a couple of accomplices brutally murdered Lackl with a .44 Magnum.[5]

How Cell Phones get into PrisonEdit

Prison GuardsEdit

The most common method of smuggling cellphones into prison is by bribing prison guards.[6] Guards will charge as much as $1,000 to smuggle in a phone and have been known to make $150,000 in a single year by smuggling phones to inmates.[6] Legislation has been passed recently to address this issue (see Legislation for Cell Phones in Jail). Despite this legislation, guards continue to supply inmates with cell phones. In November 2011, a correctional officer at the California Correctional Center in Susanville was found guilty of smuggling cell phones into prison in exchange for money. He faces a maximum statutory penalty of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Hidden in other objectsEdit

Prisoners have found many ingenious ways to smuggle cell phones into prisons. Some are carried in underwear or inside the prisoner's bodies. Others have been baked into loaves of bread, hidden inside packets of washing powder, concealed inside the soles of shoes, books or legal papers.[7] In England,the prison milkman Paul Donachy was arrested for attempting to smuggle mobile phones into Perth prison. It is claimed he inserted waterproofed phones into cartons of milk, which he then resealed. The cartons were delivered directly to the prison kitchen, where inmates with trustee status would retrieve them.[7]

Thrown over prison wallsEdit

Another increasingly popular method of smuggling cellphones into prison is by launching them over the walls of prison for inmates to collect during exercise periods. In some cases, friends of inmates use detailed satellite maps from the internet to work out the best place to throw the items so they won't be spotted by guards.[7] In Brazil, there have been cases of teenagers being hired to launch cellphones over walls using a bow and arrow.[8]

Access deniedEdit

Body ScanningEdit

Body Scanners in prisons are used to reveal items hidden beneath clothing as well as in body cavities.[9][10] While body scanning has intercepted many attempts to smuggle cell phones into prison, they do not account for cell phones thrown over walls or smuggled in by guards who can avoid the scanner.[11][2]

Dog SniffingEdit

Dogs are trained to recognize and trace the scent of cell phones. This method has become particularly popular with jails because it is claimed to be more cost efficient and reliable than other cell phone detecting or jamming technologies.[12] However, one must consider the time and money it takes to train the dogs as well as the limitations associated with dog sniffing. For example, to find the phone, dogs must be close to the phone and evidence suggests that the phone must be left in the same place for a considerable time so the scent can accumulate.[11] This would not appear to be an efficient method for searching large jails.


Jamming uses radio waves to block any radio signals in a defined area, thus preventing cell phones from working.[11][4] While this is an effective method for preventing prisoners from using cell phones, there are a number of safety and legal issues associated with jamming. Jamming is a non-specific technique that has been shown to block the signals of residents in the surrounding areas as well as interfere with emergency cell phone calls and police radios.[11] For example, a jammer used at a high school to prevent students from using their cellphones also disabled a nearby policeman's cross-band repeater.[1] Due to the ability of jammers to interfere with emergency calls and public safety communication, jamming is currently illegal in the United States.[13] Section 333 of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Act of 1934 states “[N]o person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications”.[11][4]

Managed AccessEdit

The managed access system is a method in which call signals are intercepted, not jammed, for a specific area. There are two modes for the managed access system: passive and active. During the passive mode, all devices in the area work normally while the system collects the identifying information. Once the information is collected, each phone is categorized as authorized or not authorized. During the active mode, only the authorized devices are allowed to connect to the network and function as normal, thus controlling who has access to working mobile devices.[14] Unlike jamming, this system does not require any legal adjustments, and has been implemented in institutions in Mississippi, South Carolina and California.[2][15][13] The main drawback to this system would be if a cellmate had access to an authorized device.[11]

Legislation for Cell Phones in JailEdit

The problem of cell phones in prison has developed in the past decade as the models become smaller and gain more functions.[11] For this reason, regulations for cell phones in prison are only just beginning to appear. All state and federal prisons in the United States have banned cell phones. Depending on the state, the penalties for an inmate having a cell phone vary from an increase in parole to new criminal charges.[2] In August 2010, President Obama signed into action the Cell Phone Contraband Act of 2010.[16] The bill amended the federal criminal code to outlaw the possession of cell phones by federal prisoners.[16] In October 2011, California's Governor Jerry Brown signed the Senate Bill 26 into action. The bill increases the penalties for an inmate possessing a cell phone, establishes the penalties for someone possessing a cell phone with the intent to deliver to an inmate, and permits state jails to implement the managed access system.[14] If caught with a cell phone, the inmate could lose up to 90 days of sentence credit. A person caught intending to deliver a cell phone to an inmate will be charged with a misdemeanor, sentenced to up to 6 months in jail and/or fined $5,000 per cell phone. By implementing the manage access system, the jails obtain the right to intercept phone calls for inmates and any visitors during their visit.[14]

Social groups involvedEdit

Prison GuardsEdit

Prison guards are directly in contact with the prisoners and play dual roles in the prevention and promotion of cell phone use in jail. They are responsible for checking prisoners and visitors when they enter prisons. They also survey the prisoners to ensure that mobile devices were not smuggled in some other way. The Access Denied section describes some ways cell phones have been prevented in prisons. Some more technological solutions have also been explored by the National Department of Justice.[17]

Contrarily, prison guards have been responsible for the delivery of some cell phones to inmates.[2] Guards' proximity to prisoners makes them easy targets to bribe in exchange for smuggling in cellphones (see How Cell Phones get in).


The prisoners have several reasons for wanting cell phones in prisons. Most prisoners use them to keep in touch with family and friends.[1] Although there have been suggestions in the past for landlines or prison phones that they can periodically use, the prisoners seem to prefer an exclusive or shared mobile phone because they want privacy and landlines are constantly monitored. [1] Also, prison authorities do not cover the costs of calls to landline, and hence the people calling prisoners have to pay for these calls.[4] Prisoners have also used the cell phones as a means to reveal the mistreatment and abuse they receive in prison from the guards. In one case in Los Angeles, the FBI slipped cell phones to inmates in the prison to perform a sting operation on the mistreatment in prison. [18]

Telephone CompaniesEdit

Telecommunications companies expressed resistance to jamming cellphones in prison for legal and safety issues (see Accessed Denied: Jamming). [13] Cell phone companies have argued against jamming because it blocks the use of phones for customers in the area who are not inmates, including prison authorities.

Many phone companies make a significant profit by forming contracts with prisons and charging much higher calling rates to prisoners. As a result, these companies are against cell phones in prison because prisoners would not use the landlines and the company's profits would drop. [19][1][4][20] Prisons also often pair up with certain companies that charge an overpriced rate for calls in order to help the prison generate revenue.[4]

  1. a b c d e f Cell Phones as Prison Contraband, FBI Article
  2. a b c d e f Outlawed, Cellphones Are Thriving in Prisons, New York Times Article
  3. a b Illegal Cellphone Use by Federal Prisoners, Washington Post Article
  4. a b c d e f g h i Brazilian City Wakes to Prison Gang's Power, Washington Post Article
  5. a b c d e f g h Case Studies Involving Cell Phones in Prison, "Deadly Weapon" Article
  6. a b California prison guards union called main obstacle to keeping cellphones away from inmates, Los Angeles Times
  7. a b c How smuggled mobile phones are used by prisoners, Mail Online
  8. Brazilian teen caught shooting cell phones into prison with a bow and arrow, Officer.com
  9. Inmates at Pasco jail now face body scan for drugs, weapons, St Petersburg Times Article
  10. Prison 'Fights' Cell Phones, meshDETECT Blog Post
  11. a b c d e f g Cell Phones in Prison, National Institute of Justice
  12. Cell-phone sniffing dogs, Washington Examiner Article
  13. a b c Putting an End to Illegal Cell Phone Use In Prisons, Federal Communications Commissions
  14. a b c Analysis of Senate Bill 26, US Senate
  15. Mississippi DOC Launches First Managed Access System in the U.S., PRWeb
  16. a b Cell Phone Contraband Act of 2010, US Congress
  17. "Cell Phones in Prison" (2011). National Institute of Justice. http://nij.gov/topics/corrections/institutional/contraband/cell-phones/
  18. FBI Probing Reports of Beatings in L.A. County Jails, Los Angeles Times
  19. Nationwide PLN Survey, Prison Legal News
  20. Former Inmate Explains the Real Deal, New Times Blog