Cell Phones in Federal Prison

Update (4/14): The DOJ just announced that it will require Federal Bureau of Prison halfway houses to boost services for inmates prior to release. The new rules also instruct federal work release facilities to provide cell phone access in order to help inmates seek employment opportunities.

This blog post written by Seth Ferranti, a Federal Bureau of Prisons inmate, provides an inside view of the problem of contraband cell phones in federal prison. As we have written, the problem of cell phones smuggled into prisons is dealt with entirely through a supply-side strategy meant to stop the flow of contraband wireless devices into the prison and increase the penalties for being caught with a smuggled phone.

The impact of this strategy, when effective, is to raise the value of the contraband in prison. As the article states, “All this succeeded in doing was making the prices for cell phones in prison skyrocket. Prisoners were still getting them in and using them. If you had the money you could buy one. Instead of just one prisoner having a phone, prisoners started grouping together, so that five prisoners might buy, keep and use one phone. It was more economical that way, with cell phones now going for upwards of $1500.”

As the blog post states, the airtime on cellphones has also become a new form of prison currency.

Providing prisoners, especially minimum security detainees, with a controlled and secure prison cell phone such as the meshDETECT solution will siphon off the predominant use of the contraband phones for communication with loved ones. Combined with the supply-side strategy, this demand-side approach will lower the value of the contraband wireless phones, eliminate airtime as prison currency and reduce recidivism.

Cell phones are more common in prison than you would think. All across the country in our nation’s prisons, prisoners are using cell phones to run their criminal enterprises, conduct business and stay in contact with their families. The smuggling of cell phones into prisons as contraband items has become a big and profitable business for guards and correctional officers who are quick to take advantage and make a dollar. The federal government is taking notice by enacting new and stiffer penalties for both guards and prisoners alike when they get caught with cell phones in prison. To the security conscious prison administrators, cell phones in prison are an epidemic that they are desperately trying to curtail. But with the large amounts of money changing hands for the contraband items the temptation will always be there for both guards and prisoners.

I have been in prison in the federal system for 19 years. Personally I have never had a cell phone or attempted to get one but being in the prison environment I have seen, heard and witnessed what has happened with cell phones over the years and I can relate my experiences to you. For informational purposes only of course. I first experienced the cell phone epidemic in 1999 when I transferred to FCI Fort Dix in New Jersey, a low security prison. Right when I got there, a dude I will call Jeff, approached and asked me if I needed to make a call. He went on to explain that the first call was free, but any call I made after that was three books of stamps, or about $15 at the time. I politely declined, because I did not know the dude and it was my first time in a low security prison. I had heard all types of stories of dudes going down to the lows and getting busted and set up for this type of thing, so I avoided Jeff.

But after I had been on the compound for a while I found out Jeff was a stand up guy and cell phones were his hustle. He had been at the camp at Fort Dix before and had an elaborate scheme where one of his homeboys would toss the phones over the fence of the low at a prearranged spot and Jeff would pick them up and sell them for about $200 to 300 on the compound and charge dudes $15 for unmonitored and unlimited calls. It was his hustle and his hustle was good. At the time the consequences of getting caught with a cell phone were not that serious. It was only considered a 300 series or minor shot, but that would soon change.

I got sent back up to a medium-high security institution shortly after that for writing an article in Don Diva Magazine that called for the United States to stage the drug war crime trials, where prosecutors and federal judges would be put on trial for crimes committed against the citizens of the United States, and in the medium-highs the cell phones were less prevalent, but still there. They were going for about $500. I was at FCI Fairton and a lot of the Mafia guys had cell phones. I had a lot of friends in camps and they were calling my wife on their cell phones regularly and talking to her and telling her to tell me hello. I even had some of their numbers on my prison monitored phone list. I would call them at the camp and see what was up. They would tell me I needed to get to a camp pronto. That was life in the feds. With the consequences for cell phones being minor, everyone, especially those at a camp (a minimum security prison) had one. That didn’t last long though.

With the epidemic reaching epic proportions the Bureau of Prisons acted decisively and changed the shot for cell phones from the light 300 series to a much more serious 100 series, which was the highest severity. They started writing prisoners, who got caught with cell phones 100 series shot and throwing them in the hole and transferring them. This was a big change, because for the 300 series shot, prisoners would lose their commissary for 30 to 60 days, but for the 100 series shots, they would get thrown in the whole for 60 days, lose 41 days good time plus phone, commissary and visiting privileges for six months. On top of that they would lose their camp status and be transferred to a higher security and much more restrictive prison.

All this succeeded in doing was making the prices for cell phones in prison skyrocket. Prisoners were still getting them in and using them. If you had the money you could buy one. Instead of just one prisoner having a phone, prisoners started grouping together, so that five prisoners might buy, keep and use one phone. It was more economical that way, with cell phones now going for upwards of $1500. Plus the Bureau of Prisons got crafty and started removing the Sims cards and all the info off them from the cell phones when they found them and ran the info against numbers on a prisoner’s monitored phone account, so that they could write them shots and throw them in the hole off the circumstantial evidence. So now, you don’t even have to be busted with the cell phone, if the number of your people is on there and they can match it up to your prison phone account or visiting list numbers they will write you a 100 series shot and throw you in the hole. But all this hasn’t stopped anything.

In 2006, I transferred to FCI Loretto in Pennsylvania and they had several guards bringing in cell phones, text messagers and even Smart Phones. Prisoners were going on the Internet, posting on Myspace and Facebook, texting their friends and families, even snapping photos and posting them on the social networking sites, all from prison. The phones were going for $500 to 800 and a lot of dudes had them. The SIS staff, who were in charge of prison investigations, were going nuts trying to find out who had the phones. They knew some of the Mafia guys had phones and went on a rampage, shaking down and ripping apart the lockers and rooms of anyone with an Italian surname.

There was one crazy guy from Boston, who used to send photos of his penis, a la Brett Favre, to girls he would meet on Myspace and Facebook. The girls would send back images of their private parts, which the dude would show to all his friends. The girls had no idea this guy was in prison. He never got busted or caught with the phone but other dudes did. It became a regular occurrence to get caught with a phone.

Nowadays the feds are giving prisoners caught with phones outside cases. I was just in the hole last spring here at FCC Forrest City in Arkansas with a dude who got busted with two cell phones. He got an outside case and got three more months on top of his sentence. He told me that even for two cell phones he could have only got six more months, but he was in the hole for almost nine months going to court for the case and was eventually transferred to a higher level prison and he got his phone privileges taken for five years. But he said it was worth it because when he was on the compound he had a sweet hookup similar to the one I described above with Jeff and he told me he was making a killing selling the cell phones and had his money stacked. But the feds and BOP aren’t playing when it comes to these phones, still they can’t do anything to stop them.

A certain rapper dude, whose name I won’t disclose, but was in prison with me, allegedly had a cell phone the whole time he was in prison. He was conducting his business, making plans and finalizing the deal on his new reality TV show. When his phones were found in searches and shakedowns, he would just place an order for another one and he would have it within two or three days, paying up to $1500 for it. One time they found two iPhones in his stash spot, but he didn’t sweat it. He had another one by the end of the week. But this is just hearsay and word on the pound, so who knows if it’s true.

The administration here seems to think that cell phones are coming in through the visiting room and they have changed up the whole visiting room policies because of this. My whole bid I have been able to hold my wife’s hand during visits, now due to the administration here saying that cell phones are coming in through the visits I can’t hold hands with my wife in the visiting room anymore. I can only hug and kiss her when she enters and leaves; the rest of the visit is no contact. They have even gone so far as to say that kids can’t sit on their father’s laps during visits. They are saying that there is no touching allowed at all.

It’s crazy times in the feds. I am glad that I will be out in the next couple of years, because it is only getting worse in here. The prison establishment knows their guards are bringing in the contraband but they blame us and make our families and loved ones suffer. Recently someone offered to sell me a cell phone for $1500, but I declined. I don’t need the trouble.

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