In this three-part Tech Behind Bars series, we’re exploring the points of intersection between digital culture and America’s correctional system. (See part two here, and part three here.)

On January 2, 2014, a vendor truck approached the entrance to the Sierra Conservation Center, a mid-sized state prison nestled in the sleepy foothills town of Jamestown, California. Guards were stationed at the entrance, along with Duchess, a female Belgian Malinois who works in the K-9 contraband unit of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. As the driver waited to be let in, Duchess began to sniff around the rear of the truck. Suddenly, she began whining excitedly. Something, it seemed, was in there.


When officers inspected the truck, they found a cornucopia of contraband: three tubes of Krazy Glue, four tubes of Gorilla Glue, six rolling papers, and three and a half pounds of loose-leaf tobacco. But the most valuable part of the haul wasn't the drugs. It was a plastic bag containing cell phones – fifteen in all, accompanied by a dozen chargers.

Duchess with her contraband haul. (Photo courtesy of CDCR)

Given the importance of digital connectivity in today’s world, maybe it’s no surprise that cell phones have joined drugs and weapons as the contraband of choice in correctional institutions all over the country. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has seized more than 30,000 cell phones from state facilities since 2012. In 2013 alone, Florida’s corrections department confiscated 4,200 cell phones from the state’s prisons. Sometimes, contraband phones trickle into prisons one by one; other times, they arrive all at once. A single 2013 raid on a medium-sized prison in East Texas netted 45 cell phones and 52 chargers, which had been buried in an underground cache for retrieval.


Jails and prisons are supposed to be technological dead zones. In all but the laxest minimum-security facilities, cell phones are banned for inmates, as are personal laptops, tablets, and other Internet-connected devices. Federal prisons have implemented CorrLinks or TRULINCS, e-mail systems that allow inmates to send monitored messages to pre-approved contacts. But the wider Internet remains off-limits. In many prisons, the most up-to-date device approved for ordinary inmate use is the pay-phone.

Under the surface, though, America’s correctional institutions are buzzing with illicit tech activity. Some inmates use contraband cell phones to send selfies and texts to loved ones. Others use Facebook and Twitter to complain about their living conditions, and organize collective actions with inmates at other prisons. Inmates’ desire for access to the bounty of the Internet – and correctional officers’ desire to keep those tools away from them – has created new tensions on both sides.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” said Dana Simas, a public information officer for California’s corrections department. “There’s literally an infinite numbers of ways cell phones come in, and it’s not possible to make sure every avenue is cut off.”


A display of cell phones seized from inmates at Ironwood State Prison in 2013. (Photo courtesy of CDCR)

A month-long Fusion investigation turned up dozens of social media profiles of inmates currently serving time in several states, many of whom were frequent users of the services in question. Some inmates appeared to be accessing the Internet through proxies – a family member who had the inmate's Facebook password, for example, and was using the account to relay messages – while other inmates appeared to be accessing the sites directly from their cells.

"Been on lock down for two weeks…going into the third week. Letters would be great. Money would be a blessing. If I have to choke down one more bologna sandwich I think I might snap….," wrote one Facebook user last October. The user, whose name matches that of a current federal prisoner in West Virginia, appears to have posted to his Facebook profile from two other prisons where he was previously housed.


"Hello everyone, wanted to say hi and let u know I'm currently on an extended lock-down," wrote another federal inmate, who is serving time for armed robbery at a high-security facility in Texas. "Dont worry I'm nit [sic] in trouble the lock-down is due to a big incident that happened between two gangs at my location," the inmate wrote. (Names of both inmates have been redacted to protect them from disciplinary action.)


Other social networks, too, are filled with evidence of contraband activity. One Vine user, who goes by "Acie Bandage," has posted dozens of six-second videos of himself and his fellow inmates dancing, goofing off, and doing impersonations from their prison cells. (The user wraps a bandage around his face during the videos to disguise his identity — click here to see more of his videos, which are really quite something.)

[Update: it appears that "Acie Bandage" has deleted his Vine account. Below is an archived clip of one of his videos.]

Many phones are smuggled into prisons by correctional officers (who can sell them for hundreds or thousands of dollars apiece), but there are other ways in. The Mississippi Department of Corrections authorized a $1.3 million project last year to place 40-foot-high nets around its facilities, to prevent cell phones and other contraband from being thrown over barbed-wire fences into the facility. Cell phone detection K-9 units now work in corrections departments around the country. And the New York Department of Correctional Services now equips its prisons with special X-ray chairs, called B.O.S.S. (Body Orifice Security Scanner), which are designed to prevent visitors from smuggling mobile phones inside their vaginal or anal cavities. Corrections departments have reported phones being shot out of pressurized potato cannons, stuffed inside packages of ramen noodles, and hidden inside baby diapers on family visitations.


“Inmates are so creative, and they’re smart,” Simas says. “It’s amazing what they can do with a bunch of time and ingenuity.”

Once cell phones are inside prison walls, they serve as both communication lifelines and entertainment devices. A 2013 investigation by the Oklahoman, which scoured social networks for evidence of prison-based activity, discovered more than 3,000 instances of illegal cell phone use in prison since January 1, 2012. A similar dragnet by Nashville’s Channel 4 found more than 100 inmates in Tennessee prisons who were operating their own Facebook pages from mobile devices, in some cases posting photos of themselves with drugs and other contraband. (Following the investigation, Tennessee’s prison authorities launched investigations into 17 prisons, and disciplined more than 70 inmates.) In 2010, when a group of Georgia prisoners coordinated a nonviolent hunger strike to protest their living conditions, they did it using contraband phones. “We text very frequently,” one hunger-striking Georgia prisoner told the New York Times, while estimating that 10 percent of the inmates in his facility had access to a cell phone.

The penalties for being caught using a phone in prison are severe. The Cell Phone Contraband Act of 2010 criminalized cell phone possession in federal prisons, and many states have adopted their own laws with harsher guidelines. California’s Senate Bill 26, signed into law in 2011, made it a misdemeanor to possess or transport a mobile device within a prison. In Florida, smuggling phones into a correctional facility is a third-degree felony that carries a maximum of five years of prison time. In Mississippi, the maximum is fifteen years. In a 2011 report, the Bureau of Prisons characterized illicit cell phone use as “a major security concern, given the potential the phones provide for inmates to have unmonitored conversations that could further criminal activity, such as selling drugs or harassing other individuals.”


The latest front in the war on contraband cell phones involves so-called “managed access systems,” special base stations that intercept cellular calls before they’re sent to carrier towers. In prisons equipped with these systems, cell phones with white-listed numbers can operate normally, while voice, text, and data connections from contraband phones are blocked. So far, managed access systems have been installed at prisons in Texas, Maryland, California, Georgia, and Mississippi, with apparent success. California’s managed access systems, which are installed at 18 facilities so far, have intercepted a total of 11,960,781 communications from 77,594 unique unauthorized cellular devices, according to the CDCR. (For context, that’s roughly 105 illegal communication attempts per state inmate.)

Diagram of a typical managed access system (image via California Council on Science and Technology)

Managed access systems can cost more than a million dollars apiece to install. But some prisons have found a way to lower the cost by partnering with outside vendors. In California, for example, Global Tel*Link – a private company that operates phone systems at many state and federal prisons – installed managed access systems in correctional facilities at no cost to the state, as part of a five-year exclusive contract. (Which makes sense: Global Tel*Link believes it will make more money from pay-phone fees if inmates’ wireless access is cut off.)


Many of the prison officials Fusion spoke with told similar stories about the dangers of contraband cell phones: they can be used to harass victims, intimidate witnesses, and orchestrate crimes. And it’s true that contraband phones have been used in criminal activity. In 2007, for example, the Bureau of Prisons reported that a Maryland inmate used a cell phone to order the murder of a state witness. In 2012, Indiana officials indicted 40 people for involvement in a massive, statewide drug ring, and later convicted two inmates of running the scheme using cell phones provided to them by guards.

But many inmates use cell phones in more innocuous ways – to amuse themselves and others, to keep up with the world, and communicate with spouses and family members without having to pay the often egregious fees charged by prison pay-phone providers. On social media sites, you’ll find lots of quotidian snapshots of prison life – inmates watching TV, singing, hoarding junk food from the commissary, and showing off tattoos  – but barely any activity that could be deemed illegal or unsafe. (In certain cases, contraband phones can even help secure a prison – in 2012, a South Carolina inmate used his phone to tell authorities that a guard was being held hostage, which led to that guard’s rescue.)

“For every one of those who is a problem, nine more just really want to connect with society,” says Michael Santos, a writer, teacher, and prison reform advocate who spent 26 years in federal prisons for drug trafficking. Santos, who was released in 2013, says that criminalizing cell phones in prison just increases the likelihood that inmates will re-offend once released. “[Prisons] try and keep people in the Stone Age, and they emerge from prison with no real possibility of functioning on the outside,” says Santos. “It’s a violation of human rights, frankly.”


Beyond the pragmatic safety issues, there are philosophical questions about the role digital culture should play in the criminal justice system. In 2015, as technology forms the base layer of culture, communication, and education, is it cruel and unusual to cut prisoners off from the entire online universe? What’s the role of technology in rehabilitation? If the purpose of a prison is to restrict an offender’s movement and keep him from causing further harm to the general population, should those restrictions apply just to the physical body? Or should his virtual self be imprisoned, too?

There are ways to open up parts of the Internet to incarcerated populations without throwing open the floodgates. (We’ll look at one of these efforts in Part Three of this series.) And some countries in Europe, such as Norway, have experimented with giving Internet access to inmates, on the theory that it allows them to do legal research related to their cases and keeps them from becoming socially isolated. But in the U.S., prisons have been slower to adapt.


John Laub, a former director of the National Institute of Justice, recalls that at his first briefing at the agency, he brought up the idea of running a controlled experiment in which every inmate in a given facility would be given a cell phone, in order to test the results of a more connected prison environment. Laub, who now teaches criminology at the University of Maryland, says, “You would have thought I asked them to walk on the moon. Their mouths dropped.”

In many ways, technology and prisons are antithetical. Technology is about expanding access and freeing information; prisons are about reining them in. But prisons have never been completely averse to technological change, nor should they be. (At one point, phone calls and CorrLinks e-mails weren't allowed for prisoners, but few would take them away now.) Cell phones will probably follow the same pattern of slow, careful adoption that has met other technologies in the correctional system.

The economic and legal arguments for more technology in prisons are strong. Courts have repeatedly affirmed inmates' right to conduct legal research on their own behalf, using up-to-date materials that are increasingly found only online. And studies have shown that prisoners who maintain regular contact with their friends and family members while incarcerated are far less likely to re-offend. (One study, conducted in 2011 by the Minnesota Department of Corrections, found that inmates who received visits while incarcerated were 13 percent less likely to be re-convicted, and 25 percent less likely to violate the terms of their parole.) Lower recidivism rates mean fewer people in prison, which leads to taxpayer savings and healthier state and federal budgets.


But today's interconnectedness can be scary for prison officials, who see cell phones and other devices as a bottomless source of potential threats. (And the more capable the devices get, the more threats they contain.) So, in the short term, the cat-and-mouse game seems likely to escalate. Prisoners will continue to seek out cell phones, at ever-greater risk to themselves and their families, and prison officials will expend enormous amounts of money and energy trying to catch them.

Meanwhile, the Internet – the freest, most democratic informational pipeline ever created – will remain inaccessible to those who have been deemed unworthy of it. And as more of modern life becomes inseparable from the Internet, the gulf between the free world and the incarcerated one will continue to widen.

Part two: what happens to inmates who are released into the digital world after years off the grid?