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How Corrections Officers Control Supply And Demand For Contraband Phones In Prisons

High fees and communication restrictions have produced a booming black market for cell phones in prisons. In response, corrections departments conduct mass searches and introduce policies intended to diminish their supply. But such efforts arguably play a crucial role in preserving and perpetuating this lucrative market.

The black market within the fences of the California prison in which I am incarcerated is as bad as any corrections department in this country. In my case, this prison is five hours from home, and the distance makes visitation a financial burden. Some prisoners have it even worse.

The vast majority of the prison population lives on the support of loved ones alone. While the cost of a contraband cellphone is high, the corporation-run prepaid call system is downright robbery. Desperate to stay in touch with loved ones and faced with only unaffordable options, incarcerated people turn to the black market, where they are charged as much as $1,000 for a contraband smartphone.

In March, a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission to cap rates on prison phone calls at 11 cents per minute was stayed by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. Following a lawsuit filed by prison phone companies arguing that the ruling overstepped FCC authority, the court suspended implementation of new regulations until the court battle is over.

Incarcerated persons prefer to take the risk and spend the money on contraband phones than rely on the prison phone system because of the freedom they provide and their functionality beyond making simple calls. There are no time limits and fees to place calls, and the ability to download apps makes them even more attractive.

Contraband phones are primarily brought into prison by correctional officers seeking to supplement their incomes. And the officers commission select inmates to distribute the phones throughout the population.

A few months ago, a mass search yielded over one hundred phones in one of the yards where I’m incarcerated. Every cell was searched extensively during the course of a two-week lockdown with metal detectors. Drills were used to remove light fixtures and electrical outlets, and officers peered into crevices with mirrors on sticks.

At the average rate of $1,200-$1,400 per phone, they confiscated a market-value of over $120,000. This drove the going rate for phones up to $2,000 for more than a month.

I was charged with two separate rules violations for “possession of a cellular device,” since I arrived at this facility just a year ago. I find the disciplinary practices related to this particular rules violation play an important role in the see-saw of supply and demand, which has driven the average price as high as $2,000.

According to the “Rules Violation Report” for the second of these alleged violations, (“alleged” because the charge was eventually adjudicated and expunged from all records following my formal hearing), I was caught red-handed using the phone. Officers did not search my cell afterward, even though I would need a charger to keep the phone working, and those are considered contraband, too.

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Title 15: Code of Rules and Regulations dictates a rules violations for possession of a cellular device falls under the same section as a violation for possession of illegal drugs or narcotics. The prescribed disciplinary measures throughout Section 3315 are essentially uniform: temporary loss of visitation and commissary privileges; and loss of earned early-release credits.

There’s one curious factor I’ve noticed with how these rules violations are enforced. Inmates with even a trifling amount of marijuana will be sent to the segregated housing unit (SHU), also known as “The Hole.” But, if we’re found in possession of a phone, we’re permitted to remain housed in our normal housing units—the same housing units where these phones are most accessible and where the few who can actually afford a phone keep the market afloat by repeatedly buying into it.

The drug market is self-sustaining because drugs are consumed almost immediately. There will always be a demand for them, and the supply can flow as freely as they can be smuggled into the housing units. But a phone can possibly last years once you have one. So, there is a need for constant manipulation of the supply in order to ensure a steady stream of demand.

The models of phone that I’ve come across are difficult to conceal and this could be deliberate. In the outside world, there are keychain-sized smartphones with 3G capabilities, but rarely have I seen one in here. I bought a basic talk and text-only phone the size of two fingers, and costed me the same amount as a 4G touchscreen model the size of my hand. Since each cell is to be searched no less than once a month, we take the gamble between a higher probability of longevity or video chat, email, and Google Play; social media, video games, and porn.

Mass searches should be distinguished from routine cell inspections that occur in each building on a daily basis and require no justification under the Title 15 Code of Rules and Regulations. Such purges always happen under some pretense. Their favorite one is some allegedly missing metal from some area where inmates work, such as the kitchen, the bakery, or the laundry room. That was the case when they raided our housing units back in June and July.

The metal was never found and neither were any homemade knives that were presumed to have been made with it. The excuse is always that it was probably flushed down a toilet before the search.

The International Business Times recently reported private companies and corrections departments make billions of dollars by charging excessively inflated fees for phone calls. That report found Marion County, Florida, received $549,804.52 in commissions from the phone service provider Securus Technologies. Another report found that in California, Global Tel* Link makes as much as $500 million a year.

These circumstances make it easy for a black market to thrive within a maximum security state prison. I would argue that the system is rigged from top to bottom. Profits and politics, the true driving force in our criminal justice system.

"Obama at Healthcare rally at UMD." Photo by Daniel Borman (dborman2) on Flickr.
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Jaqil Ali

Jaqil Ali