SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Cell phones in prisons have been a controversial issue for quite some time, but the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) is now requesting information from companies regarding equipment to detect illegal cell phone calls within the prison grounds.
Other states have been dealing with cell phone contraband, especially California, where the number of confiscated cell phones grew from 261 in 2006 to more than 10,700 in 2010. Although Illinois’ numbers are much smaller, they are still increasing.
“It is not a common occurrence. The average is about five cell phones confiscated per year, but we are at eight for this year, so it is up a little,” said IDOC spokeswoman Sharyn Elman.
Cell phone contraband is a serious concern and results in a severe punishment for inmates who disobey the policies. State Sen. Ira Silverstein, D-Chicago, recently introduced legislation that would strip an inmate of up to 90 days of credit against their sentences if the inmate found in possession of a cell phone.
Illinois does not have any set plans to install systems to detect cell phone usage in the prison but officials are aware of the serious threats cell phones have to the safety and security of inmates, correctional officers and civilians outside the prison walls.
A National Institute of Justice report on cell phones in prison found a number of examples where cell phones played a role in crime. The report found an inmate used a cell phone to plan a successful escape in Nevada. A former dental assistant, who has since been fired by prison officials, provided the inmate with the cell phone. In New York, an inmate used a cell phone in an attempted escape while on a medical transfer.
According to the FBI, inmates often use cell phones to intimidate and threaten witnesses, transmit photographs — including offensive pictures sent to victims — orchestrate crimes, coordinate escapes, bribe prison officers and create security breaches.
“Cell phones are perhaps the worst type of contraband because, in most cases, they provide an easy, continuing connection back to the inmate’s life on the street — the type of lifestyle that led to them being incarcerated,” said a Maryland correctional official.
Inmates receive cell phones from some unlikely sources. According to the FBI, one correctional officer reported earning more than $100,000 by charging prisoners $100 to $400 per device. Inmates also benefiting from having a cell phone by charging other prisoners up to $50 for each phone call.
On the bright side, there are ways to monitor cell phone usage at prisons and cut down on the number of contraband cell phones entering the premises. Illinois has yet to announce a definite investment in cell phone detecting equipment but other states have set up systems to help them track, monitor and decrease cell phone use in prison.
“We have no plans to utilize this service at this point,” said Elman. “We are simply requesting information to learn more about what is available.”
The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services uses canines trained specifically to detect wireless devices, including SIM cards, which prisoners often store separately to minimize lost information if a cell phone is confiscated.
“In fiscal year 2008 — 849 cell phones were found within the facility or intercepted outside the facility on prison grounds at 24 facilities,” said a Maryland correctional official.
Other solutions to limit the cell phone usage include jamming, which is a radio frequency technology used to disrupt cell phone signals. Jamming would help prisons detect and stop inmates from using cell phones. However, jamming is illegal according to section 333 of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Act of 1943. The penalty for jamming is a maximum fine of $11,000 per day and the potential for criminal prosecution.
Some states would like the FCC to revisit its anti-jamming policy and congress is currently researching the possibility of permitting jamming at prisons to prevent inmates’ ability to use cell phones. One bill under consideration would allow state governors or the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to petition the FCC to permit mobile jamming in prisons.
Despite the potential improvements jamming could mean for prisons, there are several drawbacks. Jamming was used at one correctional facility in the past and although it resulted in blocking signals from all potential inmates with cell phones, it also disabled cell phone service to more than 200,000 nearby residents. Safety is also a concern; jamming mobile service could affect police radio and cell phone reception in emergency response situations.
FBI officials believe the problem can be solved.
“This problem likely will not disappear in the near future. However, effective prevention strategies and workable policies can help minimize it,” according to a statement by the FBI.