Smartphones in Prison: New Contraband Allows Inmates to Make Money

Why today's prison inmates are willing to pay up to $10,000 for a smartphone.

Meg Kinnard / AP Photos

Time was, a pack of cigarettes was as good as cash in America's jails. But today, more modern items top the most-wanted list of prison contraband: iPhones, BlackBerrys, and Droids.

Smartphones are the new files in cakes. Today's inmates covet them more than drugs, and America’s prison system is struggling to crack down on the growing smartphone black market. In 2006, the state of California confiscated 261 cellphones from inmates. In 2010, that number leapt to 10,700. And data released this month show that as of Oct. 1, officials in California had already seized a whopping 11,400 cellphones from criminals behind bars, breaking last year’s record and with three more months to go.

Even convicted multiple-murderer Charles Manson has gotten in on the trend, caught twice with a smuggled cellphone in the span of two years. In the latest incident this past January, corrections officers at California’s Corcoran State Prison found a camera phone under his mattress. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson Paul Verke says the infraction is still under investigation, but since there were no laws in place to punish Manson for the first one, the country’s most infamous deranged killer was slapped with a largely symbolic penalty: an extra 30 days tacked onto his life sentence.

It wasn't until last year that President Obama signed a bill banning cellphones from federal prisons and making it a crime to sneak one in. State lawmakers are rushing to do the same. On Oct. 6, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law making it a misdemeanor for guards to smuggle cellphones into prisons, highlighting the fact that in many instances it is prison workers operating the in-house cellphone delivery services. In many states and in federal prisons, corrections workers are searched upon entering prison. But some states, including California, don’t require such searches. According to Sen. Alex Padilla, who sponsored the legislation signed by Governor Brown, prison guards hawking cellphones in the joint can net as much as $100,000 a year. Not bad for a part-time sales job.

Why would prisoners value a BlackBerry more than a bag of weed? For someone stuck in a cage all day, a smartphone means a link to the outside world, a bottomless source of online information, and a potential stream of revenue. Last January, a prisoner in New Jersey was caught using a cellphone to run an identity-theft ring that brought in a quarter of a million dollars for him and eight buddies on the outside. In October 2008, a death-row inmate used a contraband mobile phone to threaten a state senator and his daughters. Once the phone was confiscated, an investigation revealed that nine other prisoners had used it (likely renting it from the first prisoner) to make 2,800 calls in just a month’s time. And two months ago, a convicted child molester used his smartphone to establish a Facebook page. With access to the social network, he found a 17-year-old girl he fancied, drew pictures of her, and sent them to her mother.

The problem is not isolated to state prisons. Last month, the General Accountability Office released a congressionally mandated study focusing on federal prisons and found that the number of cellphones smuggled behind the federal wire has tripled in the past three years. Last year, Federal Bureau of Prison officials found 8,686 cellphones, up from 1,774 in 2008. “This is just one more headache for the staff and wardens,” says the GAO’s David Maurer, who participated in the research.

The GAO found that the Bureau of Prisons does not have a sound plan for testing anti-cellphone technology. Though German Shepards are able to sniff out phones in certain cases, officials have found the K-9 units can't do the job alone, and are just now experimenting with several different methods, including promising new technology that has been approved by the FCC and tested in the Mississippi Department of Corrections. The Managed Access System is like a virtual cloak thrown over a prison to block cell and smartphone messages. Dubbed “Operation Cellblock,” the technology was put to the test at Parchman Mississippi State Penitentiary last year—and shocked everyone when it blocked more than 216,000 texts and 600 phone calls in a single month from within the prison walls. Maurer admits the study found that authorities are behind in getting a handle on the problem. “It’s a constant game of cat and mouse between inmates and staff.”

Bob Hood, former warden of the country’s most secure lockdown, the Supermax prison in Florence, Colo., is alarmed by the trend and considers a cellphone as lethal as a gun. “No longer are prisons isolated from society,” says Hood. “Inmates can coordinate food strikes, mass escapes, and riots. On a larger scale, they can use smartphones to access databanks with phone numbers of witnesses, rival gang members, even staff assigned to their care.” Hood discovered how dangerous a cell phone can be in the hands of a prisoner while playing around with his own iPhone. Using Google Earth, he downloaded a diagram of Supermax, which he ran for five years. Within seconds, he was able to see parking spaces, gun towers, fence configurations, lighting systems, and recreation yards. Smartphones, he concluded, are “the new cancer attacking correctional systems.”

As with any valuable contraband, prisoners are getting more and more creative with places to hide their smartphones. Prison dogs have sniffed out cellphones hidden in fire extinguishers, in hollowed-out stacks of playing cards, and in cereal boxes. In many cases, prisoners will create what’s called a “wall safe," a space they’ve dug into the wall of their cell that they cover over with a thin layer of plaster. Here they store illegal goodies like booze, drugs—and their link to the outside world. “Cellphones are bigger than dope,” explains one former California prison guard. “It’s criminal activity to the nth degree. It’s more dangerous than a gun being in the joint.” The guard tells me he’s heard that incarcerated drug lords have been known to pay up to $10,000 for the most sophisticated phones, which can enable them to run their operations from behind bars.

When Charles Manson was caught with his simple flip phone the first time, in the winter of 2010, investigators found the notorious murderer had sent text messages to friends in California, Florida, New Jersey, and British Columbia. Officials say they don’t know if he tried to get anyone to commit a crime, but he did sing a crazy made-up song, which one of his buddies recorded. “I’ve sent the world spinning round on fire,” Manson warbled. “I’ve danced and sang in a Devil’s choir!”

Thanks to technology, the 76-year-old Manson can still send the world spinning round on fire from the comfort of his cell.