Calling a cell
With barbed-wire topped fences and mesh over the windows, it looks hard to communicate with anyone inside the Escambia County Jail or the county’s two state prisons.
But cell phone technology is making it easier for inmates and prisoners to get in touch with the outside world — giving them the ability not just to contact family and friends but also the possibility of conducting criminal activity — such as dealing drugs or even directing violence — while they are locked up.
The increase of smuggled cell phones in the system is becoming an epidemic, making them the contraband of choice among those behind bars, prison and jail officials and even former inmates said.
Smuggling in phones
“We continue to work to keep all contraband — including cell phones — out of the jail,” Escambia County Sheriff Grover Smith said. “But, when we discover how the inmates are getting the cell phones and correct the problem, they figure out another way to get it. Our problems with contraband used to be mainly tobacco. Now, our biggest issue is cell phones, and it continues to be a growing problem.”
And the problem is just as big for state prisons, Alabama Department of Corrections Public Information Manager Brian Corbett said.
“It has become a big problem and it is ongoing,” Corbett said.
“We deal with it on an everyday basis,” he said — including last Monday, when a Mobile resident was arrested after allegedly trying to throw a pink purse filled with cell phones over the fence at Fountain Correctional Facility near Atmore.
And Corbett said the problem is on the rise.
“We confiscated about 5,000 cell phones last year,” he said.
Two former inmates of the county jail said officers at the jail may unwittingly make it possible, in some cases, to keep cell phones by those who have been newly arrested.
“This is a small town and a small county,” one inmate said. “Those officers know just about everybody that comes in at the jail. Because they know us, they don’t always do a thorough search. They don’t strip search and they barely pat some folks down. It’s pretty easy to hide a cell phone when you really want to keep it.”
A second former inmate agreed, saying hiding places are plentiful when having access to cell phones and other personal items is important.
“Most everybody on the street has a cell phone these days,” the former inmate said. “When someone gets arrested, they want to keep that phone to maintain as normal an existence as possible. When that’s how you lived on the streets — with a cell phone — that’s how you want to keep on living. You’ll do just about anything you have to do to make that happen. You’d be surprised, and probably appalled, to hear how some folks get their cell phones into the jail.”
Chief Deputy Mike Lambert said possession of cell phones by inmates is inevitable and has become nearly impossible to stop, especially since inmates have so much time on their hands.
“We have a saying that ‘when inmates move, contraband moves’ down at the jail,” Lambert said. “It doesn’t matter what you do and how many holes you fill, these folks will sit and figure out a way to get what they want.”
Smith said his staff has uncovered a variety of methods used by inmates to get contraband into their possession. “We have inmates who have gotten cell phones that have been left for them by individuals around the area,” Smith said. “By leaving them in garbage cans, in bushes, throwing them over the fence — you name it. Every time we eliminate an avenue, these guys figure out a new way to get what they want.”
Social and “business” uses
Not only do the contraband phones allow inmates to keep in touch with family and friends, former inmates say it’s a business-running necessity.
“There is money to be made using those cell phones,” one former inmate said. “Folks in jail want to make calls to their family, their girlfriends and try to keep up with trash on the streets. When someone makes a call using the jail phones (pay phones) those calls are being recorded. Sometimes they want to talk about things with folks they don’t want to be recorded or listened to by the law.”
The second inmate said the money made from the use of cell phones continues to be a way of life for many who have been incarcerated.
“They’ve got to keep their business going that they were running on the streets,” he said. “They use those phones to make calls to folks who can keep making drops of marijuana or other drugs. Their folks on the outside take care of the physical end of the job and the inmate keeps things going from the inside — making arrangements for buys and drops. It’s just another way to do business.”
Corbett said the rise in the demand for cell phones inside prison walls stems from the many ways the devices now can be utilized to connect prisoners with the outside world.
“An inmate can contact any and everyone they want to contact on the outside if they have that,” he said. “They can continue to conduct gang activity. There have even been reports in other states of inmates ordering hits on people and having them carried out on the outside by using a cell phone on the inside.”
With the advent of smart phones, a prisoner’s capability to communicate outside prison walls is virtually limitless, Corbett said.
“If they have a cell phone and it’s one of the more advanced ones where they can get on the internet and have wireless connectivity, they can do all their Facebook and Twitter and whatever. You can connect to any internet site at that point.”
Corbett said the presence of the phones also causes chaos among the prisoners themselves.
“They cause lots of violence and fights,” he said. “They are worth a lot of money in a prison setting, a lot more than they are on the street. It’s very, very problematic.”
How to stop the problem
Capt. James Freeman, a jail official at the Escambia County Detention Center, said the inmates who are found to be in possession of any contraband — including cell phones — face more charges on their records.
“When an inmate is found to be in possession of a cell phone we charge them with promoting prison contraband,” Freeman said. “That’s a class C felony and carries a penalty of up to 10 years. That’s in addition to whatever else they’re facing on why they are here in the first place.”
Smith said several arrests have been made as a result of smuggled cell phones.
“We have arrested visitors, fence climbers and even some of our own employees for attempting to get cell phones into the jail,” Smith said. “We have found cell phones in the jail when we have shake downs, and we re-arrest the inmates who are caught with the phones.”
One former inmate said he was in frequent use of borrowed cell phones in the jail and had a charge added to his list of crimes while incarcerated at the county jail.
“Oh, yeah, I got caught and they charged me with promoting prison contraband and with having an escape device,” he said. “At the time, I thought making those calls was important. But, in the long run, it wasn’t worth what got put on me for having that phone.”
One of the biggest hurdles to halting the problem of cell phones in prison, Corbett said, is the variety of ways they can be smuggled into facilities.
“Cell phones are constantly trying to make their way into our facilities, be it through visitors, through someone approaching the facility and throwing them over the fence or someone trying to bring them in otherwise,” he said.
Attempting to throw the phones over prison fences is what Corbett said authorities believe the suspect in Monday’s arrest was planning.
Corbett also said that, once inside, cell phones are not always easy to detect. Despite emitting a signal, cell phones are generally found through the same routine searches that turn up non-technological contraband.
“It’s just like trying to find a homemade knife,” he said. “You just use shake downs and searches to try and find them.”
Corbett said there are devices being developed to squelch the signal of illegal cell phones, but said they are not currently at use in Alabama prisons due to federal restrictions.
“There are devices that could scramble the cell phone signal, that could block the cell phone signal that you could put in your prison setting that essentially would not let the signal out, but that is against FCC rules right now.”
Smith said those “signal jamming” devices could help stop the problem — but they would also render the sheriff’s office’s communications equipment useless, so they would cause more harm than help.
Smith said thousands of dollars have been spent in the last few years to eliminate the influx of contraband at the jail.
“We’ve had mesh installed over windows and sheet metal installed over chain link fence to cut down on things being passed to inmates from outside the jail,” Smith said. Those ‘fixes’ have cut down on fishing expeditions by the inmates, but things still get through.
“I know it’s a big issue and we’re doing what we can to eliminate it — but, in the big picture, I’d rather we’d be finding cell phones than guns and knives.”