10 February 2011

Cell Phone In Prison Concerns Overblown

NPR ran a rather hysterical story on the rising number of contraband cell phones in prisons in California a couple of days ago, that is a follow up to a case where a prison guard was fired after smuggling 150 cell phones into a prison in exchange for $150,000 of bribes. A prison regulation, but not a criminal law, prohibits cell phones in prison and corrections officials and some state legislators want to change that state of affairs.

Some of the points that deserved more scrutiny were these:

Last year, one guard claimed he made $150,000 smuggling phones. He was fired but never charged with anything.

Richard Subia, of California's Department of Corrections, says smuggling cell phones to convicts isn't a crime.

Subia may be right in detail, but he is almost surely wrong in his ultimate conclusion. While it may not be a crime to smuggle cell phones to convicts, it is almost certainly a crime for a prison guard to accept bribes in order to change the way he conducts his official duties in contravention of Department of Corrections rules, and it is likewise a crime to bribe a public official. In Colorado, these are both serious felonies (and there is also a separate minor felony for introducing contraband including cell phones into prisons), and I have a hard time believing that California lacks a bribery law.

Also, in the case, for example, of someone who throws a football full of cell phones into a prison, at the very least, it is almost surely illegal littering (a minor issue, but one that could at least provide a basis for an immediate arrest and booking of a suspect and the imposition of probation conditions prohibiting the conduct), and more importantly, the person who did so would have potential criminal liability as a co-conspirator for any crime committed by someone in the prison with that cell phone.

Corrupt prison guards are a long standing problem, and one that can't be solved once and for all. California has a strategic interest in bringing as much clout as it can to bear on guards who are found to be corrupt in order to discourage other guards from acting the same way. California would be well within it rights, for example, to charge the guard who smuggled cell phones into the prison as a co-conspirator in any attempted witness killing ordered from prison with one of those phones, and once phones are confiscated it would be possible to use cell phone company records to make those kinds of cases.

It may be possible to block unauthorized calls from prisons. But testing of that new technology won't start in California for months.

Cell phone jamming is not some highly experimental new technology, although the experience in New Zealand, where it is being phased in for all prisons is mixed. You can order one and get it delivered in a matter of months. A single device of the type used in the war in Iraq, which is the size of a boom box, could prevent cell phones from working anywhere in a prison complex. Industrial grade versions are available off the shelf. For example, one model designed for use in prisons costs about $8,900. You can order a model that blocks a 40 foot radius for immediate delivery off the shelf for $25 and use it as a stop-gap if a problem is suspected until a more comprehensive solution is devised. At any rate, the main concerns are legal rather than technical.

It's very frustrating to me that we have people who work for our organization that are willing to risk the lives of their fellow employees. It creates another risk for the employees and inmates in our facilities, as well as the public at large.

- Richard Subia, of California's Department of Corrections

The risk from cell phones in prisons is not significantly a risk to the lives of prison guards. This is hyperbole. The main risk is that gang leaders and organized crime figures will use cell phones to run their criminal enterprises from prison, for example, ordering that witnesses be killed, something a high profile case in Denver involves right now even without a cell phone. A secondary risk is that the inability of prison officials to monitor cell phone communications as they can land line communications might make it harder to collect evidence from recordings of those calls that can be used to bring prosecutions of other crimes. There is some dim possibility that a cell phone could be used to coordinate and plan a prison break, but, the sheer difficulty of arranging a prison break from a prison with any significant level of security is immense with or without a cell phone.

Of course, a huge amount of cell phone use by prisoners would be benign - calls to friends, loved ones and legitimate business associates much like calls that anyone else would make. The majority of prison inmates are not violent criminal masterminds with large organizations at their beck and call; they are mostly stupid, ineffectual losers with poor impulse control and substance abuse problems who were acting alone or whose co-conspirators are also in prison themselves.

The truly scary prisoners whom we worry would direct criminal activity from cell phones in their prison cells are pretty much confined to a small number of higher security prison facilities. So, one could get the vast majority of the public safety benefit from cell phone blocking at prisons from devices at a very small number of facilities.

Of course, an even lower technology solution could be devised. State governments could pass a law prohibiting cell phone companies from providing coverage in the tiny handful of cells where they make cell phone use from high or medium security state prisons, and use their power of eminent domain to compensate the cell phone companies and the property owners they have leases with for the economic harm that this does to them. They could probably even impose a users fee on cell phone companies to pay for it.

In short, while the NPR story identified a legitimate matter of public concern about corruption and about cell phone use in California prisons, its uncritical reporting left unchallenged some very questionable statements made by the public officials involved.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My sister's husband is in prison for beating her unconscious and setting her on fire, and employees at his prison have allowed him to use their work cell phones to call her. That is not benign.