Inside Facebook: the rise of the cell phone

 Cell phones

This is the third in a series of posts about the use of social media in different parts of the criminal justice.

The use of mobile phones in prison has been an increasing problem over the last 10 years. I was part of a team which conducted an extensive study into prison drug markets back in 2004 and although it was relatively easy to smuggle drugs in by a variety of routes (using the rectal cavity being by far the most prevalent and effective method), it was very rare for us to hear about mobile phones inside.

However, they have now become commonplace. The latest information that I could find refers to 2008 when over 8000 mobile phones or SIM cards were found in prisons in England and Wales – including nearly 400 from high security jails. The problem is no better in Scotland with a staggering total of 367 mobile phones confiscated at just one prison – Edinburgh, AKA Saughton, population 872 – in 2010. Indian jails have set up jamming equipment to try to tackle the problem.

The phones are a real concern because they enable prisoners to continue to engage in illegal activity – the two biggest problems are running drug dealing operations from inside and intimidating witnesses to try to stop them appearing at upcoming trials.

But what has this to do with social media? Well, interestingly, there is increasing evidence of prisoners in the United States using social media, particularly Facebook, whilst inside. The Huffington Post recently reported that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has partnered up with Facebook to disable the profiles of any prisoners who have updated their statuses since their incarceration. Sometimes a friend on the outside is maintaining the profile (which is against Facebook policy) but sometimes, the prisoner himself is posting on Facebook from a hidden mobile phone. The scale of the problem is equally substantial in the US with more than 7000 mobile phones confiscated in California prisons in the first six months of 2011.



The consequences can be a lot more serious than the usual use of Facebook to establish bragging rights. The Post article details the 2010 case of the family who returned from holiday to find several letters from a prisoner who had been convicted of sexually abusing their daughter. The letters contained accurate drawings of the daughter even though the prisoner had been sent to prison seven years previously – an investigation revealed that he had used a mobile phone to view the victim’s MySpace and Facebook pages to see her current appearance. In effect, by accessing Facebook from inside he was able to continue abusing this young woman.

Now that smuggling mobile phones into prison is so commonplace, it’s unsurprising that lots of prisoners want to avail themselves of this facility to avoid queueing up to use the public phones situated on the landings. These are typically only available for limited times and in high demand – the phone queue is a reliable stress factor in prison life, the starting point of many fights and arguments.

Keeping in regular contact with loved ones can be the key to surviving a prison sentence and can preserve fragile links with partners and children. It was heartening to read that Serco has installed landlines in prisoners’ cells at both HMP Lowdham Grange, and HMP Dovegate. Prisoners are able to make calls 24 hours a day but only to a restricted list of approved telephone numbers and, as with other official prison telephones, calls may be monitored.

A spokeswoman for Serco said that the installation of landlines had led to a significant improvement in prison security. Not only were there many fewer attempts to smuggle phones in, but the number of prisoners failing mandatory drug tests had also fallen. She also reported that there were fewer assaults, less bullying and fewer incidents of self-harm – all of which were at least partly attributable to the fact that inmates could make phone calls more regularly and in private.

This one simple initiative has enhanced prisoners’ rights and resettlement chances whilst tackling a key reason for violence and bullying inside and criminal behaviour on the out.

Any day you can get two for one is a good day.


Resource note: If you are looking for detailed information on individual prison regimes, check out Inside Time, the National Newspaper for Prisoners, used as a source throughout this post.



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