prison cell phones


In prison, a cell phone is a dangerous weapon

by Ben Johnson and Aparna Alluri, NPR Marketplace
February 4, 2015

When you think of all the things that prisoners aren’t allowed to have on them, cell phones might not top the list. But, for prison officials, they do.

“Prison officials see this as the most dangerous form of contraband,” says Kevin Roose, senior editor at Fusion, whose ongoing three-part story explored how prisoners use technology.

US Prisons, says Roose, are spending millions of dollars to keep cell phones out of prisons.

Mostly because they have been used in the past to harass victims or even coordinate crimes from behind bars.

Now, prisons are trying out something called a “managed access system.” It acts like a cell tower, and intercepts data and calls from the person using the phone before they reach the carrier. If you are not one of the people authorised to be sending or receiving calls or texts, you’re blocked from doing so. Managed access systems can cost up to $1 million, but many correctional systems think they have a better chance blocking the phones than keeping them out of the hands of inmates.

Why? Because the phones are usually smuggled in by the guards themselves, who, according to Roose, charge prisoners “hundreds or thousands of dollars a piece.” Soon, an “underground economy” crops up: an inmate who has a phone starts renting it out to others.

But not everyone is using cell phones for the same purpose. In some cases, Roose found, people just wanted to find a way to “stave off the loneliness.” Like one man who makes 6 second videos for Vine. He even has a couple of hundred followers.


Ben Johnson is the host of NPR’s Marketplace Tech. Aparna Alluri is a freelance reporter based in New York City, currently working at Marketplace.


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1 Response to “prison cell phones”

  1. February 7, 2015 at 3:32 am

    Prevent detainees to communicate freely so that they will not threaten their victims or organize criminal activities from the bottom of their cells is certainly a good thing, perfectly justifiable. After all, those who engage in such activities are certainly those who are at their true place behind bars. But push the reasoning a bit more far.

    The employment of systems such as the one described in the article appear to pose some legal issues. Waves for cell phones communications do not stop at the limit of the fences surrounding the prison and a system of emission control will be necessarily have an effect beyond the perimeter of the prison compound. That would deprive people who are absolutely not affected by this kind of restrictions on their way to communicate freely, out of the area which the prison authorities are entitled to exercise their control.

    The thing may seem of little importance in the case of major correctional facilities located away from the cities. But it is not the case. It is the same for jails or detention centers where detainees are serving short sentences or awaiting trial, often located in the city. One cannot prohibit a lawyer who comes to visit his client to give a phone call after he left the prison, a deliveryman leaving prison to contact his employer. Let alone an inmate’s family member or a simple individual using his cell phone for a call from a public space, near from any correctional facility.

    In short, – and sorry if I seem candid – this would constitute a new infringement of freedoms for all those who are not subjected to prison’s restrictions.

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