Smartphones: Contraband communication on steroids

Smartphones are creating a new challenge for officers behind the wire


By Carol McKinley

These are complicated times for corrections officials. First, cellphones were a huge contraband challenge. Now, illegal smartphones like the BlackBerry and iPhone are finding their way inside the wire, and they are dramatically increasing the threat from inmates.

Talking and texting on a phone from jail is bad enough, but prisoners with unlimited access to the internet can view child pornography, dream up financial scams, make drug deals, and use GPS apps to plan crimes on the outside.

Illegal smartphones like the BlackBerry and iPhone are finding their way inside the wire, and they are dramatically increasing the threat from inmates. (jurvetson/flikr)

Illegal smartphones like the BlackBerry and iPhone are finding their way inside the wire, and they are dramatically increasing the threat from inmates. (jurvetson/flikr)

What happens if an inmate uses his BlackBerry to take a picture of a rival gang member scheduled to be released and sends it out to this homies with a deadly plan? What is the danger to a correctional officer if a prisoner who has a beef with him sends out his picture or other personal information? What’s to stop someone from searching the layout of an institution, the parking lot and surrounding areas to help in an escape attempt?

A smartphone can be used to find the address of, for instance, a witness and hone in on that exact location with Google Earth. With this powerful hand-held computer, being locked up won’t stop prisoners from conspiring with people all over the world. Technology in a jail cell can be just as dangerous as a razor blade under a mattress.

“It’s the most lethal weapon you can have inside a prison,” says security expert Terry Bittner. “Smartphones make it easier for inmates to keep on with crime as they do their time.”

Bittner is the director of security products for ITT Corporation, which developed the Cell Hound, a cellphone detection device which can locate cellphone activity within a corrections facility. When a call is made, the system pinpoints exactly what time it’s made and where it’s happening.

One drawback to the Cell Hound is that it won’t sniff out hidden cellphones unless they are turned on. Bittner recently got an unwelcome surprise when he learned that prisoners armed with smartphones were getting intelligence on his company while he was installing the Cell Hound to collect intel on them.

While technicians were getting it up and running, an inmate saw a sticker on a piece of ITT equipment, Googled the serial number with his illegal BlackBerry, and discovered exactly what the prison was doing. “You have to stay a step ahead. The enemy always morphs,” Bittner said.

Sim cards present another problem. The tiny smart cards can be loaded with valuable information, which makes them ripe for smuggling. People can earn good money by hiding a sim card under a tongue or between their toes, walking it inside and selling it. Bittner explained that, once inside the facility, prisoners can sell time on the sim card by renting it out to other inmates.

Social Networking Sites
Smartphones also grant inmates access to social media sides like MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook, creating another level of dangerous communication.

“It’s beyond email now,” explains social media strategist Laurie Stevens. “These sites would be almost impossible to monitor -- inmates can create dozens of aliases and, of course, use their own passwords. They can become who they want to be day or night, and they’ll know how to get around the system.”

Stevens advises corrections officials to come up with a plan outlining how to deal with the increasing problem of smartphones in jail. “Put guys and gals in a room and look at your philosophy on how you want to deal with your inmates and their communication with the outside world. Come up with a policy.”

Smartphones are banned in all federal and state correctional facilities, even for officials. Punishment for a prisoner found with one varies from state to state. For some, there are additional criminal charges, and for others, parole is affected.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em
Some groups are advising prisons to embrace new technology by setting up a community computer for inmates and allowing time and access with severe restrictions.

The National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union says better communication with family and friends through email can help a prisoner transition to the outside world. Furthermore, it may cost less to monitor email than it does to keep an eye on snail mail.

In June of 2011, the Federal Bureau of Prisons will have established TRULINCS, or Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System. This will enable federal prisoners to send and receive email, though access to the internet will be forbidden.

Several other states will be following suit, and in Kansas, state corrections facilities will even allow video family visits and electronic banking. Setting up strictly monitored computers may be a good compromise for corrections facilities, but smartphones are another story. Bittner believes they have no business in prisoners’ hands.

“This is about unmonitored communication. The only way to solve the problem is to find the hardware (the smartphone) and get rid of it,” he said.

Technology is daring society to keep up. It is only logical that the challenge is being extended to include the world inside the wire as well. The alternative is to be left behind.

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