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Prison Cell Phone As Commissary Item? Why Not?

This article about contraband cell phones in the West Virginia prison system begins, “The latest iPhone won’t be among the items in any West Virginia prison’s commissary. In fact, no cellphones will be there.”

What’s interesting is that there really is no reason why cell phones shouldn’t be a commissary item. As long as it a secure prison cell phone with all the controls and security offered by the traditional prison wall phones now used in correctional facilities large and small across the country. Is there something inherently more secure about the fact that a jail phone is hung on a wall? In fact, these prison payphones have security issues all their own because they require prisoner movement in order to be accessed.

The usual justification for banning contraband cell phones is that prisoners use them to harass people, however a spokesman for the FBOP states in the article, “If an inmate gets a smartphone or a cellphone inside the institution, usually they won’t be using the phone to harass victims or the community. They want to keep it as quiet as possible. By harassing someone, obviously, that person will go to the authorities and we’ll find (the phone).”

We agree that contraband cell phones should be banned for all the reasons usually given when this issue is discussed, but as long as a prison-approved cell phone has all the controls, security and forensic capabilities of a prison wall phone, why not offer it in the commissary? Easier and more frequent telephone access means more revenue for the prison and more connection to families for the prisoners.

The latest iPhone won’t be among the items in any West Virginia prison’s commissary.

In fact, no cellphones will be there.

It is illegal for West Virginia inmates — from those in local jails to federal lockup — to possess a cellphone. That means no texting, no snapping casual photos from the prison gym and no Angry Birds. Wardens also nix Internet access, although federal inmates have access to an email system they can use to message people who have approved the contact. But that doesn’t mean inmates don’t find ways around the warden’s rules. An inmate at FCI Morgantown will spend another three months behind bars for having a cellphone inside the Green Bag Road correctional facility.

Daniel Johnson, 21, pleaded guilty to possession of a prohibited object and was sentenced before U.S. Magistrate Judge John Kaull earlier this month, according to a press release from U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld.

The state Division of Corrections (DOC) seized 16 cellphones from inmates in 2011, officials said. The same year, 3,684 cellphones were confiscated in federal prisons across the country, according to news reports. Figures were not available on the number of cellphones seized at local federal correctional facilities, but, according to U.S. Attorney William Ihlenfeld’s office, nine federal inmates in West Virginia were charged with cellphone possession in 2011.

Any state inmate caught with a cellphone or other communication device can be convicted of a felony and made to serve one to five years in prison or, in the judge’s discretion, up to one year in jail, per state code.

Anyone who provides a cellphone to a state inmate can be convicted of a misdemeanor and made to serve up to one year in jail.

Smuggling a cellphone into a federal correctional facility or being a federal inmate in possession of a cellphone is punishable by up to one year in prison, according the U.S. Attorney’s office.

State Regional Jail Authority officials said they didn’t catch a single inmate with a cellphone last year.

Despite national news reports that inmates are using smartphones to access the Internet and harass their victims via social networking sites, state officials say they haven’t heard of any inmates doing that here.

Chris Burke, spokesman for the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), said most inmates just want cellphones to communicate with the outside world without prison officials knowing what they’re talking about. Calls made from prison and jail phones are monitored.

“If an inmate gets a smartphone or a cellphone inside the institution, usually they won’t be using the phone to harass victims or the community,” Burke explained. “They want to keep it as quiet as possible. By harassing someone, obviously, that person will go to the authorities and we’ll find (the phone).”

Cellphone smuggling hasn’t become much of a problem in West Virginia’s jails and prisons because of poor cell service.

“The West Virginia Division of Corrections does not seize a lot of cellphones in comparison to states with more urban and suburban areas with greater cellular signal coverage,” a DOC statement said. “This may change in some areas of the state as cellular coverage improves. However, certain areas of the state in which we have correctional facilities are somewhat remote and others are located in areas which fall within federal ‘quiet zones’ and, in these areas, we would not anticipate any increases in the foreseeable future.”

Federal regulations restrict cellphone and radio signals in the area around the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank to minimize interference with satellites, according to the observatory.

Inmates at regional jails and state prisons also have no Internet access. Federal inmates can only use an approved email system.

“It would do nothing but cause problems,” Regional Jail Authority Chief of Operation John Lopez said.

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