Illegal Phone Problem Plagues Bureau of Prisons

By Carlton Purvis

Every time someone smuggles a cell phone into a prison, another prisoner loses a ping pong ball. Well, not literally, but when a prisoner uses a cell phone illegally, it’s not only a safety issue, but it cuts into profits from the telephone system used to provide prisoner amenities.

In the Bureau of Prisons (BOP), 74 percent of revenue for prisoner’s amenities comes from the telephone system, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. The report is a public version of a prior report that was deemed law enforcement sensitive because it contained information about how cell phones were smuggled into prisons.

The Cell Phone Contraband Act of 2010 made it illegal to have cell phones in federal prisons. But despite the law, cell phone jammers, and technology to detect phones, cell phone use in prison is still growing.

In 2010, the BOP confiscated 3,684 cell phones from its institutions. Thirty-two percent of them were found in low, medium, or high security areas. The remainder was found in minimum security prison camps. In more secure facilities, the numbers had doubled from 2009.

The numbers show that there are obviously some problems keeping cell phones out. Corrections officials attribute the rise to the availability of small, low cost cell phones and the result of stricter searches.

Officials want prisoners to have contact with the outside world. It helps inmates maintain family and community ties. It also helps them reintegrate back into society when the time comes. What officials don’t want is for prisoners to do it illegally.

Using the prison telephone system, prisoners are usually limited to 15 minute phone calls. They pay six cents per minute for local phone calls and 23 cents for long distance phone calls. They can also call collect.

In 2010, these phone calls brought in more than $74 million in revenue for the BOP. After paying the costs to operate the telephone system, the BOP came away with a profit of about $34 million. Long distance phone calls generated more than 90 percent of that. Those 3,700 cell phones confiscated last year were potentially millions in lost revenue.

Cell phones don’t just reduce revenue; they’re also a BOP safety concern.

“Inmates with cell phones are able to circumvent the approved prison telephone system and thus are able to hold unmonitored conversations,” the report says. And often these unmonitored conversations range from arranging delivery of drugs or other contraband, transmitting information about prison staff or inmates to people outside of prison, harassing witnesses, and planning escapes, according to officials.

BOP doesn’t collect data on situations where cell phones were used to do any of those things (the Cell Phone Contraband Act doesn’t require them to), but they’ve often found that cell phone use was linked to these activities, officials told the GAO in interviews.

Calls are logged and recorded automatically in the prison telephone system. They can also be restricted to approved numbers only, along with several other access control measures. To get more prisoners to use the prison telephone system, the GAO talked to BOP officials about lowering the cost of inmate calls.

Lowering the price of calls would allow inmates to make more calls, but unless some provision was made, it would result in less revenue for amenities.


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