The Art of Cellphone Communication in Prison


When you want to communicate with someone, you probably grab your cell phone to make a call, send a text or shoot an email. For prisoners, that avenue of communication is possible, but it carries huge adverse consequences if caught.

Prisoners live in a time warp that is several decades behind the free world. Some have never touched a computer. We have, however, made serious advances in recent years. Until 2017, Florida prisoners communicated with any one on the other side of the fences by sending letters via snail mail or collect phone calls. Then, former Florida Department of Corrections (FDC) Secretary Julie Jones fulfilled her promise to bring prisoners under her control into the modern world with tablets.

That allowed prisoners to download movies, games, videos, and to communicate via email. Of course, everything comes at a cost. Even an email costs at least 32 cents and it takes hours, and sometimes days, for them to pass through the security scanning system. It was still a huge improvement.

Economics drives what is available in prison. Thus, cellphones are widely available on the market. You may be wondering how that’s possible with metal detectors and other security measures. Think of going through airport security and ramp up the scrutiny ten times. It is that rigid for a maximum security prison. Yet, the FDC reported finding over 9,000 cellphones between 2017 and 2018, or one for every nine prisoners. Fair Use.

How they get onto the grounds is not something I’m not privy too. First, few will reveal that information and asking questions can get you labeled as a snitch, which puts your life in danger. What I can say is there have been reports of guards bringing them in for a profit. There have also been instances of packages going to the prison industry here that contained phones and other contraband. Some visitors have been arrested for trying get through the gates with a phone. Packages have been thrown over the fence. There are rumors of drones dropping packages. Where there’s a will, a way will be found.

I’ve heard that most phones in prison cost less than $50 in the free world. They are the sold inside, on the current market, for around $800 to $1,000. I’ve heard of a used phone selling for $1,200 when supply was scarce.

So, the potential for profit is huge. My sources say that a new phone comes with the charger for the unit. Again, I can only speculate as to who makes that happen and how it happens, but I can’t see it happening in quantity without staff involvement. When your base salary is $33,500 a year, the temptation to make an extra thousand dollars or two must be enticing.

Prisoners who have acquired a cellphone tell me it’s like having a new baby. They are constantly caring for it, as it must be charged and hidden from security. Charging is the most dangerous time. I have seen several phones lost because the owner left them charging in a wall socket or on the kiosk as a guard was making rounds. When charging, most prisoners are diligent in keeping others out of their business and keeping an eye out for guards.

With the tablets came charging stations and kiosks for them. The stations are locked but, like the kiosks, have USB cords, which makes them perfect for phone charging too. Numerous phones have been confiscated from inside locked cabinets that house charging stations or while sitting on a kiosk.

Cell Phones the Bureau of Prisons confiscated at a federal prison and adjacent camp. Credit: WikiCommons.

A problem arose in my area because some prisoners took charging units from locked cabinets after snapping off the USB plugs. There were once over a hundred cords in each of the three cabinets in my unit, now there are only 16 cords to service approximately 270 tablets. Part of the problem is that guards failed to lock the cabinets and supervise their use.

Phones and chargers must be securely hidden at all times. Random, routine and mass shakedowns are common in prison. The main of objective of searches is to find weapons, drugs and cell phones.

In the warehouse that is my open bay dorm, housing 92 prisoners, shake downs inevitably turn up phones and chargers. I’ve heard of phones being found in hardcover books, photo albums, inside of tablets or hidden in holes built into walls or under floor tiling.

Before shakedowns, it’s a mad scramble to hide everything. Afterwards, despite all the security measures, it never fails that I see someone pull out their device.

Some prisoners say they want phones only to communicate with family and to surf the internet. A few guys told me they use them only to conduct legitimate business and to work to get themselves out of prison by pursuing exculpatory evidence to pass on to a lawyer. There are those who use phons to sell drugs or cigarettes, and use them to transfer money to an outside account.

One prisoner I know called his family on a cell phone to report a positive parole hearing outcome. He was caught, put in confinement, and his parole date was pushed back for three years. Another prisoner, released in late May 2021, was swiftly charged criminally for possession of a phone and for possessing child pornography that was found on it.

That rare outcome was probably due to the fact that he was in prison for possession of child porn. Criminal prosecution for phone possession does not occur often, probably because pursuing cases would further clog the courts.

It still stuns me to see guys openly using a cellphone in the face of the risks. Some just don’t worry much about the consequences, calculating that the benefit is worth the potential price if caught.

Of course, in the prison environment a guard cannot leave his main post to make rounds without word being passed to every prisoner in the area. Guards are watched more than the prisoners. That’s just the way it is. Prisoners know the routine and cooperating guards will pass word of an impending shakedown. After all, if a bunch of contraband is found in their area of control, it makes them look bad.

Prison officials use dogs to look for phones and have every nook and cranny of institutions searched, but cell phones still abound. So long as the demand exists, someone will step up to supply the lucrative market. It’s the basis of capitalism, and it works with an especially cruel efficiency in prisons, where people live in isolation and in poverty.

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