The Mobile Revolution Surges Behind Bars

Mobile phones are popping up around the world in unprecedented numbers, but not everywhere is this technological revolution encouraged. In prisons throughout the United States, possessing a wireless device is a felony, thanks to a bill passed last year. Despite this deterrence, reported Kim Severson and Robbie Brown of NY Times earlier this month, cell phones are omnipresent in most U.S. prisons (in fact, between January and April 2010, workers confiscated tens of thousands of mobile phones throughout the country).

The authors highlighted the problem behind increased mobile usage behind bars:

Although prison officials have long battled illegal cellphones, smart phones have changed the game. With Internet access, a prisoner can call up phone directories, maps, and photographs for criminal purposes. Gang violence and drug trafficking... are increasingly being orchestrated online, allowing inmates to keep up criminal behavior even as they serve time.

Inmates can also access social media over their phones to organize and monitor strikes, as was the case recently in Georgia:

Under pseudonyms, [inmates] 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.

For that particular strike, prisoners at ten facilities organized using cell phones as their main tool. “For months the prisoners had apparently used cell phones to get in touch with inmates from other prisons,” one online magazine explained, adding that participation reached the tens of thousands in what became the largest prison strike in U.S. history, enabled in no small part by mobile tech.

This sort of open communication makes the mobile phone a hot commodity among inmates. TIME called these devices the most valuable “underground currency” in prisons, running at $1,000 a piece in California and even going for about four times as much as heroin in one Texan prison. It’s also why prison officials are so concerned about cell phones in penitentiaries.

More worryingly for them, the fight against contraband cell phones is an uphill battle that they’re currently losing. Corruption within the system, reported NPR’s Laura Sullivan, plays a significant role, with some guards accepting as much as $500 to help smuggle phones through metal detectors and into cells. Illegal cell phone use is “often tied to correctional officers,” and this trend doesn’t look like fading anytime soon.

So, prisons have to fight back against the surge of mobile phones by jamming signals or detecting phones, and both methods face serious setbacks. The former can inadvertently jam officers’ radios, while the latter is expensive and cannot detect SMS transmissions. The situation is desperate, with some penitentiaries even turning to phone-sniffing dogs to help quell the mobile uprising.

What does all this mean? For one thing, the remarkable appeal of 21st-century technology isn’t limited to the free world. The access to information and connectivity provided by mobile phones is clearly as valuable to prison inmates as it is to farmers in Kenya, or to expectant mothers in India. This is an important indicator of the raw power of mobile tech and the challenges that come with it.

Looking more broadly, this case is just another iteration of what Alec Ross, Secretary Clinton’s Senior Advisor on Innovation, views as a major theme in our history: the battle over access to information. Ross explained that tech “can help information and ideas flow,” but ultimately it’s up to us as people to decide whether this flow is positive or negative. In the case of prisoners accessing mobile phones, there’s clearly a danger of uprising, or of orchestrating crimes remotely from the confines of a cell.

But can this technology be harnessed in prisons, rather than ostracized? Could iPads help inmates learn valuable skills, such as literacy or vocational training? Might we encourage prisoners to access (closely monitored) local wireless networks with their smart phones, allowing them to collaborate on classwork or trade e-books with each other? Utopian ideas, maybe, but ones worthy of consideration as mobile technology continues to saturate all dimensions of society.