Prisoner Cell-Phone Use Prompts Legislation

Published March 6, 2012

In an effort to thwart the use of cell phones in prisons, the Illinois Department of Corrections is requesting information from cell phone companies regarding equipment to detect and “jam” or prevent illegal cell phone calls within the prison grounds.

The Correctional Department says contraband cell phones pose dangers by potentially helping in escape attempts and by enabling prisoners to arrange for crimes against people outside the prison, but at this time they are only seeking information and do not have any set plans to install systems to detect the devices.

“While cell phones can pose a threat, the actual number of phones confiscated within Illinois DOC facilities is fairly low and therefore doesn’t constitute the department spending money on this type of system at this point in time,” said Stacey Solano, public information officer for the Illinois Dept. of Corrections.

Growing Problem?
Although the number of illegal cell phones actually collected in Illinois is low, the problem is increasing, the state’s numbers show. Five phones were collected in 2010, and 15 in 2011. The increase, however, was caused by staff members at one facility bringing their cell phones into the facility for personal use.

“They were not giving them to inmates, but … the department is vigilant in doing everything it can to keep cell phones and other contraband out of the facilities,” Solano said.

A report by the National Institute of Justice showed the number of phones confiscated in California is much higher than in Illinois. Correctional officers seized 1,331 cell phones there in the first six months of 2008. Corrections officials in other states have also reported finding hundreds of cell phones.

Escape Attempts
The report states cell phones are a widespread problem and contribute to escape attempts. It claims the problem gained national attention when a death row inmate used a cell phone to threaten a Texas senator.

A Nevada inmate planned a successful escape with the help of a cell phone provided by a dental assistant. The dental assistant was fired by prison officials. In New York, an inmate used a cell phone to plan an escape while on a medical transfer. Prison officials learned a phone that aided in the escape of an inmate in Tennessee had been hidden inside a jar. As a result, prison officials banned jars of peanut butter.

Addressing with ‘Vigilance’
Currently, correctional officers in Illinois perform shakedowns on prisoners, staff, and visitors to search for contraband, including cell phones, to avoid phones being smuggled into the prison grounds, Solano says.

She said the Illinois DOC is addressing the problem with “vigilance.”

“Deterrence of crime inside prisons is particularly important when the crime affects people outside prison walls,” said Kasey Higgins, a research associate with the technology policy project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. “Cell phones would make it easier for prisoners to conduct crimes against the general population, which gives cause for concern and potentially a need to detect use.”

Pending Legislation
Legislation has recently been proposed in Illinois by State Sen. Ira Silverstein (D-Chicago) that would strip an inmate of up to 90 days of credit against their sentences if cell phone possession is discovered.

Higgins says the legislation could be excessive.

“An inmate who merely has possession of a cell phone could lose credit of up to 90 days already served, even if they do not use the phone to commit a crime. Deterring crime within prison walls is important, but illegal cell phone use is admittedly not abundant, so while detection measures may be necessary, excessive punishments are not,” she said.

No First-Amendment Traction
For those who claim prisoners have a constitutional right to use cell phones, Higgins argues prisoners should be treated in accordance with the Eighth Amendment, which means they cannot be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment.

“Depriving a prisoner of a personal cell phone is probably not cruel and unusual,” Higgins said.

“There may be a First Amendment argument here, but it’s not likely to gain any traction,” she added. “Prisoners do have free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution, but those rights can be limited for safety purposes. Cutting off a prisoner’s right to communicate via cell phone, especially if it is to perpetrate a crime, is a valid safety concern.”

Solano said inmates who have phone privileges are allowed to make collect calls on the phone system, which can be monitored by DOC staff.

Higgins opposes the use of jamming devices to interfere with cell phone use in prisons.

“Jamming devices could potentially disrupt service outside of the prison, which has all kinds of dangerous implications,” said Higgins. “A jamming device could cut communications between citizens and police or fire departments. If prisons want to prevent cell phone use among prisoners, they should do it through other, less dangerous means.”

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.