In most jurisdictions, prison inmates are forbidden from possessing mobile phones due to their ability to communicate with the outside world and other security issues. Mobile phones are one of the most smuggled items into prisons. They provide inmates the ability to make and receive unauthorized phone calls, send email and text messages, use social media, and follow news pertaining to their case, among other forbidden uses.[1][2]

Reasons cell phones are prohibited

Security concerns are often cited for why cell-phones are prohibited in prisons.[citation needed]

Cellphones in prisons have been used to organize work stoppages for prison labor between prisons.[3] Forced penal labor in the United States is a common practice.[citation needed]

In the United States, prison phone calls represent one of the few ways that prisoners can connect with family and loved ones in the outside world. However, these calls can be prohibitively expensive, a situation which has sparked controversy in light of the fact that they represent a source of profit for private prisons.[4] Some have argued that this profit motive plays a key role in cell phone bans in prisons.[5]

Methods of smuggling

Most mobile phones are smuggled in by prison staff, who often do not have to go through security as rigorously as visitors. Security of staff is often less intense because this would be time-consuming on the part of the staff, unionized prison employees are paid for this time, and it would thus increase the overall cost of operations,[6] also, prison staff are often reluctant to diligently search their own co-workers to avoid agitating their colleagues and damaging workplace morale.

More rarely, mobile phones are smuggled in by visitors, who must undergo tougher security checks, by inmates who are granted temporary leaves of absence, or by outsiders who establish contact with inmates alongside the prison fence and/or deliver them using drones.

Once inside prison walls, the devices end up in the hands of inmates who purchase them with cash, which is also contraband in most prisons. Black market prices vary by prison, and can be up to US$1000.[1]

Uses by prisoners

While some prisoners use their mobile devices simply for harmless communication or web browsing, others use them for criminal activity. These may include gang control, taunting witnesses, planning escapes from custody or arrangement of other serious crimes.[7] Prisoners may also use smart phones to gather intelligence on prison staff and to coordinate clandestine activity within the facility.[1]

Federal prosecutors charged five South Carolina prisoners with conning at least 442 service members out of a total of more than half a million dollars in November 2018. Two other South Carolina prisoners, John William Dobbins and Carl Richard Smith await trial for multiple scams operated using contraband cell phones out of Lee Correctional Institution, including one catfishing scam that ended in the suicide of army veteran Jared Johns.[8][9]

Not all inmates use mobile phones for harmful purposes. Many inmates use them to hold innocuous conversations with family and friends.[10] In South Carolina in September 2012, an inmate using a contraband cell phone alerted authorities about an officer being held hostage, leading to that officer's rescue.[11]

Combating mobile phones in prisons

Laws have been passed in various jurisdictions, placing penalties on inmates who possess mobile devices as well as staff who smuggle them in. Inmate penalties range from loss of privileges and behavior credits to additional sentencing. Staff penalties range from disciplinary action to job loss to criminal charges.[12]

Consideration has been given to using cell phone jammers inside of prison walls to render them ineffective. The practice of jamming cell phone signals is illegal in the United States. Exceptions to this law have been considered for prisons, though there is concern that a cell phone could be a guard's lifeline in a crisis, and other rescuers may need to use them for communication.[6][13][14]

Some places are using an experimental technology of managed communications that blocks the communications of inmates while continuing to allow that of others.[6] This Managed Access System (MAS) technology was first deployed at Mississippi State Penitentiary in 2010 by Tecore Networks.[15]

Special dogs have been used to sniff for cell phones coming into prison walls. Mobile phones have a unique scent, and these dogs have been trained to detect it.[1]

One solution would be to enable the correctional facility to automatically detect and locate contraband 2G/3G/4G and WiFi mobile devices thereby enabling the facility staff to confiscate the phone and neutralize the threat completely.

An automatic 24/7 detect and locate solution such as this bypasses the weaknesses inherent to jamming (e.g., phones of facility workers can be jammed); managed access solutions (surrounding neighborhoods can be affected by the "bleed" from these systems preventing bystanders from making calls and/or not all makes of phones are subject to call intercept); and phone sniffing dogs (this solution only works when the dogs are patrolling). New solutions have been introduced to the market that provide such automated 24/7 detect and locate capabilities.

Another solution is the use of ferromagnetic cell phone detectors. This technology detects the presence of the ferrous metal components (antenna, vibrator, speaker) that are in cell phones. The reliance is then not on the location of signals, but in the recognition of the physical phone itself which cannot be masked by internalizing or hiding on the person.[16]

In 2010, Robert Johnson, a prison guard at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina, was shot six times by a gunman hired by an inmate using a contraband cell phone. In 2013, the FCC suggested prisons be allowed to manage cell phone network access which would allow only authorized phones to access the network. However, the movement did not pass.[17][18]

In February 2014, the government of Honduras enacted legislation mandating that the cellular providers in Honduras block their own signals at the nine national prisons throughout the country, in order to eliminate the extortion and kidnapping schemes that were being run by inmates within the prisons.[19]

In 2015, prison guards Romero Nobrega in Brazil found a cat that was used to smuggle cell phones into the prison. Four phones, four chargers and seven cards were found on it, and the prison administration carried out an unsuccessful search.[20]

In Ireland, 648 phones were smuggled into jails in 2016, despite heightened security measures.[21]

In 2017, it was announced that American company Securus Technologies had developed and invested more than $40 million in "Wireless Containment Solutions", which create a local cellular network inside a prison which require all phones on the network to be screened and approved.[22][23]

In the UK, 20,000 mobile phones and sim cards were recovered as prison contraband in 2016. In 2017, a prison in Bristol added telephones and computers which were not connected to the internet into the prison cells in an attempt to combat illegal mobile phone usage.[24][25] The UK Parliament passed a law which would allow mobile phone operators to jam cell phone signals in prisons later that year. The legislation also enabled prison officers to use devices which detect mobile phone usage.[26]

In 2017, jails in Scotland implemented plans to block active phones within prisons through network monitoring.[27] Between 2013 and 2017, 1,500 mobile phones or component parts were found in Scottish prisons.[28]


  1. ^ a b c d "Smuggled cellphones a growing problem in California Prisons". CBS. October 17, 2012. Retrieved December 3, 2012.
  2. ^ Kevin Johnson (November 20, 2008), Smuggled cellphones flourish in prisons, USA Today, retrieved April 28, 2010
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  4. ^ "November". 2016. Retrieved 2018-01-27.
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  13. ^ "FBI — Cell Phones as Prison Contraband". Retrieved 2013-02-10.
  14. ^ "Testing cell phone jamming in prison", The Baltimore Sun, February 17, 2010
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  16. ^ "The War on Cell Phones | Corrections Forum". Archived from the original on 2019-07-06. Retrieved 2017-03-21.
  17. ^ Goldman, David (7 April 2016). "FCC wants to stop prisoners from making cell phone calls". CNNMoney. Retrieved 2018-01-27.
  18. ^ "Ex-Corrections Officer Works to Disconnect Inmates' Phones". NBC 6 South Florida. 6 November 2017. Retrieved 2018-01-27.
  19. ^ "Honduran Inmates Communicate with Contraband Telephones". Archived from the original on 2014-03-01. Retrieved 2014-03-11.
  20. ^ "Cat caught 'smuggling' mobile phones into high security prison". 6 April 2015. Retrieved 2015-04-06.
  21. ^ McDonagh, Darragh (31 August 2017). "An average of 12 phones are seized in Irish prisons every week". Retrieved 2018-01-27.
  22. ^ "Securus Technologies invests more than $40 million to block illegal prison calls - San Quentin News". San Quentin News. 2017-10-01. Retrieved 2018-01-27.
  23. ^ Inc., Securus Technologies. "Securus Technologies Announces the Activation of Additional Wireless Containment Solution Installation". (Press release). Retrieved 2018-01-27. ((cite press release)): |last= has generic name (help)
  24. ^ "Prisoners to get phones and computers". BBC News. 2017-08-18. Retrieved 2018-01-27.
  25. ^ Home Correspondent, Richard Ford (2017-10-24). "Prisoners given phones in cells to prepare them for outside world". The Times. Retrieved 2018-01-27.
  26. ^ Swinford, Steven (2017-02-23). "Prisoners using mobile phones in jails to orchestrate crimes face crackdown". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2018-01-27.
  27. ^ "Prisoners in Scottish jails to have mobile phones blocked". Retrieved 2018-01-27.
  28. ^ "1500 mobile phones found in Scottish prisons despite 'ban'". dailyrecord. Press Association. 2017-11-14. Retrieved 2018-01-27.