The ability of U.S. prisoners to get their hands on powerful, Web-connected smartphones has U.S. prisons worried and seeking ways to keep the devices out of inmates' hands or render them inoperable.
For years, prison officials nationwide have had to deal with contraband cell phones smuggled into their facilities for fear inmates could use the mobile devices to, among other things, orchestrate criminal activity from behind bars . The problem continues to persist, and has only gotten worse with prisoners obtaining new and ever more powerful smart phones.
As The New York Times reported yesterday, smart phones can alter the balance of power inside a prison .
The Georgia prison strike, for instance, was about things prisoners often complain about: They are not paid for their labor. Visitation rules are too strict. Meals are bad.
But the technology they used to voice their concerns was new.
Inmates punched in text messages and assembled e-mail lists to coordinate simultaneous protests, including work stoppages, with inmates at other prisons. Under pseudonyms, they shared hour-by-hour updates with followers on Facebook and Twitter. They communicated with their advocates, conducted news media interviews and monitored coverage of the strike.
The problem is made all the more acute by the revolution in technology brought about by smart phones that can connect to the Web. "The smartphone is the most lethal weapon you can get inside a prison,” Terry L. Bittner, director of security products with the ITT Corporation, told the Times. “The smartphone is the equivalent of the old Swiss Army knife. You can do a lot of other things with it.”
Although prisons try to detect and confiscate contraband mobile devices, their efforts have so far been futile. The devices get smuggled into the prison by visitors and guards as well as simply thrown over the prison walls. “Almost everybody has a phone,” a 33-year-old prisoner in Georgia told the Times. “Almost every phone is a smartphone. Almost everybody with a smartphone has a Facebook.”
While cell phone detection and jamming have been offered as solutions, the Times reports that Mississippi has deployed a system that may be a game changer. (For more on the controversy over cell phone jamming in prisons, see "Hearing Weighs Pros and Cons of Cell Phone Jamming Inside Prisons .")
Called managed access, the system establishes a network around a prison that detects every call and text. Callers using cellphones that are not on an approved list receive a message saying the device is illegal and will no longer function.
At the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which houses about 3,000 inmates, 643,388 calls and texts going in and out were intercepted from July 31 to Dec. 1, 2010. The system was so successful that Mississippi is installing it at the state’s two other penitentiaries.
This summer Congress tried to create a legal deterrent to smuggled devices inside U.S. prisons, which was signed by President Obama in August. Under the Cell Phone Contraband Act (.pdf), prisoners caught with a contraband phone or wireless device can have a year tacked onto their sentence.
Photo of smartphones by Honou/Flickr