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lunes, enero 03, 2011

Let Prisoners Keep Their Cellphones

The prevailing assumption is that prison walls are supposed to prevent prisoners from interacting with the free world, including their families. And that there's something about that that's protective of society. So communication by prisoners with the outside world is generally forbidden. This is the case for each of the 2 million prisoners in the US. Computers are banned. Phone calls are close to impossible: talking on the phone system provided by the prison can bankrupt those who receive prisoners' collect calls (collect calls are frequently required and cost $1 per minute or more). Visits are tightly regulated as to duration and frequency and behavior. Furloughs are extremely rare if available at all. And all cellphones are banned. This prevailing idea is easily encapsulated: if you're locked up, you're supposed to be isolated as completely and thoroughly as possible from whatever might be on the other side of the walls. No matter what.

Does this make any sense? Or put another way, is there a real reason why prisoners shouldn't be given full access to cellphones and smart phones while they are incarcerated?

The New York Times notes that cellphones are now common in prison even though they are banned. How common?

At the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which houses about 3,000 inmates, 643,388 calls and texts going in and out were intercepted from July 31 to Dec. 1, 2010.

That's a lot of calls. And a ton of texts. That means that prisoners who were completely isolated weren't any longer. Before the isolation occurred for many reasons. Prisoners and their families couldn't afford the extortionate charges for collect phone calls. Prisoners and their families couldn't afford the cost of transportation to Parchman Farm and a motel room to stay in over night. That meant that many prisoners could serve their entire sentences without a single visit. But now, miraculously those who have cellphones, mostly purchased from guards, had instant access to their families. This is good and humane and compassionate. But that does't matter. The proliferation of cellphones leads those quoted in the Times as if by reflex to raise the black flag of prison anarchy and warn about how extremely dangerous smart phones are in the hands of prisoners, complete with cameo appearance by none other than Charlie Manson:

With Internet access, a prisoner can call up phone directories, maps and photographs for criminal purposes, corrections officials and prison security experts say. Gang violence and drug trafficking, they say, are increasingly being orchestrated online, allowing inmates to keep up criminal behavior even as they serve time.

“The smartphone is the most lethal weapon you can get inside a prison,” said Terry L. Bittner, director of security products with the ITT Corporation, one of a handful of companies that create cellphone-detection systems for prisons. “The smartphone is the equivalent of the old Swiss Army knife. You can do a lot of other things with it.” ...

In Oklahoma, a convicted killer was caught in November posting photographs on his Facebook page of drugs, knives and alcohol that had been smuggled into his cell. In 2009, gang members in a Maryland prison were caught using their smartphones to approve targets for robberies and even to order seafood and cigars.

Even closely watched prisoners are sneaking phones in. Last month, California prison guards said they had found a flip phone under Charles Manson’s mattress.

But most prisoners aren't Charles Manson. Far from it. Most long for contact with their children, their families, their partners. And most don't have any criminal plans in keeping that contact alive. Just as they don't have criminal plans when they have their infrequent visitors. Take this for example:

The recent rise in smartphones raises larger issues for prisoners and their advocates, who say the phones are not necessarily used for criminal purposes. In some prisons, a traditional phone call is prohibitive, costing $1 per minute in many states. And cellphones can help some offenders stay better connected with their families.

Mike, the Georgia inmate who was part of the recent strike, said he used his to stay in touch with his son.

“When he gets off the school bus, I’m on the phone and I talk to him,” he said in an interview on his contraband cellphone. “When he goes to bed, I’m on the phone and I talk to him.”

How is that contact harmful?

Easy, cheap contact with one's family is unequivocally good. Being able to talk to one's kids is very important. Especially when the family is poor, lives hours away, and cannot afford the trek to make a scheduled visit. One would think that prisons should welcome the phones the same way decades ago they welcomed television as a pacifying, de-stressing benefit to prisoners and staff alike.

In fact, the phones may have been responsible in large part for the success of the recent Georgia Prison strike. The Times reports:

The Georgia prison strike, for instance, was about things prisoners often complain about: They are not paid for their labor. Visitation rules are too strict. Meals are bad.

But the technology they used to voice their concerns was new.

Inmates punched in text messages and assembled e-mail lists to coordinate simultaneous protests, including work stoppages, with inmates at other prisons. Under pseudonyms, they shared hour-by-hour updates with followers on Facebook and Twitter. They communicated with their advocates, conducted news media interviews and monitored coverage of the strike.

It wasn't necessary to have a full scale riot to get the prisoners' points across the walls to those on the outside. Nobody had to be taken hostage. Nobody had to be threatened. Would cellphones have prevented Attica? I don't know. But not one person was killed or injured in Georgia.

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