Cell Phones, Dogs, and Prisons: A Better Policy Is Needed

I call friends and family during the holidays. For me, unlike email and social networking options, talking to someone is a more intimate and fun experience. Regardless of how one “reaches out and touches someone” as AT&T used to say, it is easy to take the ability to do so for granted. As I thought about how much I rely on being able to connect with those close to me, I remembered how to manage the way in which inmates can communicate with the outside world poses some challenges. There is evidence that crimes are planned when inmates have cell phones and other means of communication. Yet, there are benefits to letting inmates have better ability to communicate with family and counsel. Unfortunately, the press about the problem has been a bit inflammatory, and one of article buried the real solution: fix the market for communication by inmates. When land line calls from prison cost hundreds of dollars a month, it may not be surprising that a black market for cell phones arises and may cause more problems than the ban on cell phones prevents.

There is a plausible argument for the ban on cell phones in prison. According to an article about Florida’s acquisition of a second cell phone sniffing dog (yes, a dog that can smell whether one has a cell phone): “Inmates can use phones for a variety of purposes, none of them good, corrections officials say. Among the most worrisome: using cell phones secreted behind bars to contact former associates on the outside to keep criminal operations going – something that’s far more difficult to do on monitored land lines.” Even Wired seems to agree that cell phones in prison are a problem and recently ran an article entitled “Prisoners Run Gangs, Plan Escapes and Even Order Hits With Smuggled Cellphones.” Yet, these perspectives seem to miss some key points about why these problems occur.

Before law and order screeching begins, let me be clear. I do not think letting prisoners have easy means to perpetuate bad acts is a good thing. And I do not doubt that some prisoners, maybe even many, use phones for all sorts of nefarious deeds. Nonetheless, one may want to ask why the incredible demand for cell phones? For example, according to Wired, “One California officer told investigators he made more than $100,000 in a single year selling phones.” Now prisons are investing in special dogs and expensive cell signal detectors. Some want the Federal government to allow cell jamming.

As the Wired article finally admits, “While the squabbling continues, what might be the most effective way of cutting illicit phone use is largely ignored: making it easier for inmates to place calls legally.”

As the article explains:

[I]nvestigations have established that most calls placed on contraband mobiles are harmless—just saying hi to family and friends. Whatever their crimes, most convicts have parents, children, and others they’re desperate to stay in touch with. Letters are slow, and personal visits often involve expensive, time-sucking travel. Some prisons have public phones for making collect calls, but access is limited, conversations are often monitored, and phone companies often charge much higher rates than on the outside.

And there is the problem. As a friend of mine informed me, even calling one’s counsel is difficult and quite expensive. I am not sure who is at fault, but either the prisons or the phone companies have set up system that costs so much money, one cannot be surprised that smuggling cell phones makes sense. One person ended up spending $800 a month to make land line calls. In an era of flat rate bills that is ridiculous.

Furthermore, the Wired article notes that letting prisoners have better connections with their families helps society in general because:

[I]t could reduce crime and save the public a bundle by cutting recidivism. Most of the more than 2 million men and women behind bars in the US will eventually be released, and decades of research show that those who maintain family ties are much less likely to land back in jail. Every parolee who stays straight saves taxpayers an average of more than $22,000 a year.

Even tough-on-crime Texas has embraced that logic. The state has long refused to allow phones of any sort for inmates in its prisons, but this year officials are installing landlines. “Once they’re in place, we expect a decrease in the problem,” Moriarty says.

In short, fair land line rates would seem to be a good idea. Another more controversial idea would be to let more information flow but monitor it. Privacy concerns are obviously huge here. Still, off the top of my head, I wonder whether a system where prisoners can connect with family but may give up privacy to monitor text and other communication, just as apparently happens with land line calls, would be better than encouraging everyone to use a contraband phone.