Should Prisoners Have Cell Phones?

The New York Times recently published a report on the growing epidemic of cell phone use by prisoners.  Whether hidden in packages brought by visitors, purchased from corrupt prison staff members, or thrown over barbed wire walls, hundreds of thousands of criminals use cell phones within our nation’s prison system.  The severity of the problem was highlighted when Charles Manson was found to have a cell phone hidden under his mattress in his prison cell at Corcoran Prison.

A cell phone in the hands of a prisoner presents significant danger.  Prison officials believe that cell phones are being used by prisoners to conduct illegal business with the outside world including harassing witnesses, planning escapes, and calling for individuals to be murdered.  As opposed to making a collect call from a prison phone, cell phone conversations cannot be monitored.  As smartphones like the iPhone 4 and Android-powered phones make their way into the prison population, their powerful set of features increase the damage that a person could do from a prison cell.  Some prisoners have even set up Facebook profiles using smuggled smartphones, and many of them play FarmVille.

Recognizing the danger, prisons forbid the possession of cell phones by inmates.  Furthermore, technology used to jam cell phone signals is being considered by many wardens to incapacitate any cell phone in the hand of an incarcerated person.  So far, the FCC has not approved such jamming devices citing their illegality (in light of the Communications Act of 1934) and the chance that cell phones and emergency calls outside of the prison could be disrupted.

Some argue that instead of fighting the use of cell phones by prisoners, prison officials should embrace them.  They note that cell phones can be effective tools for monitoring prisoners inside a prison facility and possibly assist in rehabilitating them.  On a more pragmatic note, allowing prisoners to use cell phones presents a revenue opportunity for creators of apps and digital content like electronic books and magazines.


Cell phones could be used to monitor the location of prisoners within a prison facility.  Products like the ITT Cell Hound track all cell phones within a prison and display their location on a computer screen.  Currently used to find illegal cell phones, such products could instead provide a cost effective way to track the more than two million people (almost half of them are black men) in the US prison system.


The ability to maintain family ties has been shown to help prisoners cope while incarcerated and also better integrate back into society once released.  Furthermore, the large number of black men contained in the country’s prison system means that many of their children have limited contact with them.  Collect calls made from prison phones, while offering prison officials the ability to monitor conversations, are extremely expensive.  Therefore, prisoners often have to live with very short telephone conversations with those who care about them the most.  Allowing prisoners to have cell phones would provide a cheaper way for the personal ties that every human being needs to be maintained.


Mobile applications are expected to be a 35 billion dollar industry by 2014 which demonstrates the appeal of the market.  Consumers enjoy using smartphones to play games like Angry Birds, read electronic books, keep up with the news, and perform many other tasks.  Officially opening this market to the millions of people in prison could cause the mobile application to grow even faster than projected.  This, in turn, could provide additional stimulus to the American economy which is still working to fully recover from a recession.

Creating a policy that allows prisoners to use cell phones would not be paid for with taxpayer dollars since the prisoners (or their families) would be responsible for paying for the phones and service plans.  In fact, this could lead to fewer tax dollars spent to fund the massive US prison system.  Of course, any program that allows prisoners to use cell phones would have to be tightly controlled.  Not every prisoner should be allowed to have a cell phone, but it could be a useful tool for the ones who can handle the privilege.



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