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Corrections Communications

Inmates' abundance of creativity keeps correctional organizations busy finding countermeasures and inventing new technology to keep the prisons secure and the staff and inmates safe.

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No research and development operation anywhere in the world can beat the innovative capacity of an inmate population. As long as there have been jails, there have been prisoners scheming how to evade their watchers, if not the prison altogether. This abundance of creativity keeps correctional organizations busy finding countermeasures and inventing new technology to keep the prisons secure and the staff and inmates safe. Of these technologies, communications is the present focus of ingenuity on both sides of the bars.

E-mail for Inmates

The Arkansas Department of Correction (DOC) is considering providing inmates limited access to e-mail. According to an October 2009 article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, people who wished to communicate with prisoners held at two units at a Newport, Ark., prison could pay a small fee to send messages to the inmates. Corrections staff would receive the messages, review them, and print them out for delivery to the inmates' cells. Prisoners would have to respond to the messages by conventional snail mail, although the Arkansas DOC will consider expanding the program to allow inmates to send their own responses. As with the incoming messages, the inmates' traffic would also be reviewed by staff before it was sent.

Corrections professionals typically regard this program as a classically bad idea, but it is in use in institutions in other parts of the country, and is so far working well. Moving written communications between inmates and "the outside" from paper to electrons eliminates a common contraband pipeline. Even thin envelopes can conceal drugs and cash intended for introduction into the inmate economy.

E-mail with the $0.44 per-message cost assessed by the system provider is cheaper than the collect call surcharge attached to most outbound telephone calls from inmates. In Arkansas, these calls cost $4.80 for an in-state call and $10.70 for a call to an out-of-state number. Inmates have a legitimate need to maintain contact with their families if they hope to avoid total institutionalization, and it is easier to monitor written communications than to record and have a staff member monitor every phone call.

A service called wants to take this initiative a bit farther. contracts with an institution, then allows family and friends of inmates to establish an account and transfer money for charges incurred for "their" inmate. Once institution staff approve the relationship, the inmate and his associates can send e-mail to one another, with staff reviewing each message before delivery.

Computers used by inmates have no hard drives or direct connection to the Internet, and staff determine how much time each inmate is allowed to have on the computer. proposes to expand the service farther to allow video visitation between the inmate and his approved correspondents.

Video Visits

Speaking of video visitation, another program in Yakima, Wash., plugs another conduit for the conveyance of prohibited items-inmate visits. As of November, inmates incarcerated in the Yakima main jail and downtown annex will receive visits through a video interface only. The county constructed cubicles at the county's restitution center in Union Gap where families and friends will go to "meet" with inmates, who will attend a similar cubicle at the jail.

Jails across the country have used video links for brief courtroom hearings for many years. Conducting court appearances by video eliminates the need to transport and secure inmates between jail and courthouse, which also reduces the drain on manpower and enhances safety at both the courthouse and the jail.

Secure visitation via a glass partition and telephone receiver prevents the passing of contraband, but still require moving the inmate from his cell to the visiting room. Escorting prisoners ties up staff and provides an opportunity for inmates normally segregated from one another to commit assaults. With a video visitation system, the inmate need be brought only as far as the nearest cubicle, and the visitor doesn't need to come to the institution at all.

You can expect to see more use of this technology in the future. Where the early court video systems required stringing coaxial cable and installing relatively costly cameras and microphones, new installations need be no more complex than a desktop computer with a webcam.

To Jam or Not to Jam

Without doubt, the battle royal of the day is between cell phone users and service providers and the forces that seek to make the phones inoperable. Cell phones have been characterized as possibly the most dangerous weapon an inmate can have inside prison walls. With a cell phone, an inmate can coordinate a prison or outside street gang, make threats against witnesses, arrange for contraband to be smuggled in, and do almost anything he could do if he wasn't inside.

Texas inmate Richard Tabler made his point when he called Texas state Sen. John Whitmire to complain about the way he was being treated. Whitmire leads a criminal justice committee in the Texas legislature. During the call, Tabler made Senator Whitmire aware he knew the names, ages, and residences of his children, just in case the legislator wasn't taking him seriously. The inmate didn't think he would have an opportunity to meet with the senator personally-he is a convicted murderer on death row.

Each generation of cell phones gets smaller. That makes them that much easier to smuggle inside. Many institutions have copies of x-ray films that attest to the determination of inmates and visitors who have concealed cell phones inside body cavities by "kiestering," and there is always the possibility of getting one through by hiding it inside a boot, a book, a food package, or some other common camouflage.

There is also the unfortunate likelihood of identifying a staff member who can be persuaded to bring one or more phones into the facility, since the commission for this can be into the thousands of dollars. Some inmates have cell phones solely for rent to other inmates-they don't use the phones themselves. More than 4,000 cell phones were confiscated inside California prisons during the first nine months of 2009.

Methods used to locate and identify other types of contraband can work with cell phones, but they tend to be expensive and not always available. There are dogs trained to find cell phones, but it's expensive to purchase and train a dog, and governments aren't exactly flush with cash these days. Cell searches are time- and personnel-intensive, and inmates are very good at finding new hiding places.

One highly controversial solution is cell phone jamming. The fundamental technology is nothing new, having been around as long as military forces have used wireless communications. A jammer transmits a signal on the same frequency or frequencies as used by the radio to be jammed. So long as the jammer signal is stronger than that of the radio, the radio signal will be overwhelmed and unable to communicate with its intended receiver.

In order to jam all types of phones capable of communication around an institution, a jammer needs to transmit on multiple frequencies at once. This is also relatively simple technology. Cell phone jammers interfere with the downlink signal from the cell phone tower. The user perceives the jamming signal as a dead zone, with his phone showing a "no signal" message.

The advanced technology comes in limiting the jamming signal to the area where you want to deny callers the use of their phones. Radio energy doesn't propagate to the limit you want and stop. It maintains enough strength for a clear signal to a predictable distance, then fades out as that distance increases, or it encounters an obstruction capable of blocking or absorbing it. Vendors of jamming equipment insist they can tailor the jamming very precisely to the areas intended.

Prisons are anxious to deploy jamming equipment, but the FCC won't let them. The 1934 Federal Communications Act made it a criminal offense to interfere with any licensed wireless transmission, and the cell phone companies hold the licenses. S. 251, the Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009, would enable the governor of each state to petition the FCC to allow jamming of cell phone signals within a prison. This bill has passed the senate by unanimous vote and at presstime was in the House of Representatives, where H.R. 560 of the same name has 50 co-sponsors and is in committee.

Anti-jamming advocates insist the jamming signals will expand past the desired limits and deny service to lawful users who happen to be nearby, or are far away but in the range of an unobstructed signal. Also a matter of concern is the opportunity for this technology to infiltrate into the regular community, once Pandora's Box is open. Theaters, auditoriums, and churches urge those in attendance to turn off their cell phones, but many do not. Hotels would prefer their guests use their room phones for calls, so they can collect the significant surcharge they impose. Would they "encourage" this by making cell phone calls more difficult to complete?

Another aspect of the jamming debate comes from those who believe cell phone detection is a better way to go. Some federal prisons use an ITT product called Cell Hound to notify staff when cell phones are in use, and to pinpoint their location. This gives staff the opportunity to locate the phone and whoever is using it. By identifying the phone, investigators can then determine who is calling or being called, and when. They can also get the cell service provider for that phone to shut it down, making it useless.

This could provide an important source of intelligence, but it's an imperfect solution. Walls, bars, and even furniture can distort the signal path, distorting the location data. And cell phone providers, as most of us have come to know, are not always quick to act when customers or anyone else makes requests of them.

Signal detection works only when the cell phone is broadcasting. The signal is cut by turning the phone off or removing the battery. A GSM phone excluded from the network can be revived by inserting a new SIM card, which is the size of a postage stamp.

No one knows whether jamming, detection, or better methods of screening out contraband will work best to defeat inmate cell phone use. Whichever method we use, it's a matter of time before inmate ingenuity produces a new way to evade the rules and frustrate correctional staff. 

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and the former editor of two major law enforcement Websites. He writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice and can be reached via

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