Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Can You Hear Me Now?

Cellphones Thrive Behind Prison Walls:

Although prison officials have long battled illegal cellphones, smartphones have changed the game. With Internet access, a prisoner can call up phone directories, maps and photographs for criminal purposes, corrections officials and prison security experts say. Gang violence and drug trafficking, they say, are increasingly being orchestrated online, allowing inmates to keep up criminal behavior even as they serve time.

“The smartphone is the most lethal weapon you can get inside a prison,” said Terry L. Bittner, director of security products with the ITT Corporation, one of a handful of companies that create cellphone-detection systems for prisons. “The smartphone is the equivalent of the old Swiss Army knife. You can do a lot of other things with it.”

The Georgia prison strike, for instance, was about things prisoners often complain about: They are not paid for their labor. Visitation rules are too strict. Meals are bad.

But the technology they used to voice their concerns was new.

Well, yes and no. Prisons have long had elaborate underground communication networks, the likes of which most people don't understand. Oftentimes, inmates in one prison know what's happening in another prison long before the staff does. That's old and goes back to Goffman's Total Institution days of the mid-20th Century.

But despite the security threat posed, guess what most inmates are doing? Yeah, the same thing you and your mom and every one else is doing: trolling for nookie on Facebook.

A counterfeiter at a Georgia state prison ticks off the remaining days of his three-year sentence on his Facebook page. He has 91 digital “friends.” Like many of his fellow inmates, he plays the online games FarmVille and Street Wars.

“Almost everybody has a phone,” said Mike, 33, an inmate at Smith State Prison in Georgia who, like other prisoners interviewed for this article, asked that his full name not be used for fear of retaliation. “Almost every phone is a smartphone. Almost everybody with a smartphone has a Facebook.”
I wonder what they post for their profiles? "Has worked at the laundry and the kitchen. Lives in Crossbar Hilton. Is from nowhere you heard of. Studied at what's that mean? Favorite Movie Shawshank. Relationship Status Complicated."

And how does dude have 91 "friends" when I have barely the same number of followers on Twitter? It ain't right!

Payments for cellphones range from $300 to $1,000, depending on the type of phone and the service plan. Monthly fees are generally paid by inmates’ relatives. Phones are smuggled in by guards, visitors and inmates convicted of misdemeanors with lower security restrictions.

But that is not the only way. In South Carolina, where most prisons are rural and staff members have to pass through X-ray machines and metal detectors, smugglers resort to an old-fashioned method — tossing phones over fences.

Right, but the predominant way is via staff. And what the article seems to gloss over is the fact that staff is often motivated to take a $300-$1000 kickback because we pay correctional officers such abysmal salaries (the mean in 2009 was $28,0000). And unlike law enforcement, where ANY citizen might pose a potential threat to your safety, in prison EVERY person poses such a threat. Would you do that job for $28,000 a year?

I don't necessarily agree with the ACLU and the Prison Project, that we should go ahead and accept the inevitability of smart technology and just issue every prisoner a phone. But I do suspect these growing stories of cellphone use in prison are probably more moral panic than reality (you can file it alongside the latest 21st century moral panic of sexting).

Are cellphones being used and do we need to control it (the Mississippi solution mentioned seems best)? Of course. But the notion that prisoners are sitting around on Facebook or twitter, orchestrating crimes, planning riots, and instituting strikes (and yes, for those of you who have asked, I'm still loathe to call the December incident here in Georgia the "largest prison strike in history"), is silly.

In fact, I might offer up the suggestion that cellphones are purposely being allowed in to prisons in order to make it easier to monitor and control an inmate's behavior.

Regardless, at this stage of the game it just seems to be more political fodder for the get tough types out there, who will no doubt use the issue as a cudgel to further beat up on the 2.3 million men, women and children we have behind bars.

Maybe someone should come up with an IQ app that establishes a baseline threshold to hold political office (say, room temperature).

No comments: