Local News

Cell phones growing concern in state prisons

Posted February 14, 2011 6:00 p.m. EST
Updated February 15, 2011 9:55 p.m. EST

— Smart phones are being smuggled into prisons at an alarming rate, giving inmates access to the outside world, including the Internet and social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace.

Ricky Anderson, deputy director of prisons, says the state's 70 prisons do not allow computer or Internet access inside prison facilities, but inmates have found a way to go online using smart phones that are smuggled inside.

It's an issue prisons are dealing with nationwide.

“Cell phones inside of a prison are definitely a challenge,” Anderson says. “As technology advances, of course, it presents more of a problem for us.”

Over the past five years, the number of cell phones and smart phones confiscated in state prisons has steadily increased. In 2005, 33 devices were confiscated. By 2010, the number had risen to 634.

Anderson says the DOC has been working hard to combat the problem

“We have explored technology to fight technology,” Anderson says, “which would be jamming devices and those sort of things. However, we have to work with the Federal Communications Commission.”

The FCC prohibits “cell jamming,” which effectively disables phones by blocking communications and preventing mobile phones from receiving signals. The concern is that they can interfere with law enforcement and emergency communications.

“It’s been a slow go,” Anderson says. ”We’ve also explored canines.”

The state has two specially trained dogs to help correctional officers detect cell phones in prisons, and the state has applied for a grant with the Governor’s Crime Commission to purchase and train six more.

But Anderson says prison officials have had the most success at preventing cell phone smuggling by performing thorough searches at prison entrances.

“When we get those reports, we of course investigate and try to recover the cell phone,” Anderson says.

Attorney General Roy Cooper says the growing number of cell phones being confiscated in state prisons is a concern.

“This is a public safety issue when a prisoner has access to these multimedia devices and (is) able to send threatening messages – maybe to witnesses in a trial – send inappropriate messages to children, organize gangs or try to direct drug deals,” Cooper says.

“These devices give them the clear opportunity to do that,” he adds. “With possession to these devices, they can cause a lot of harm behind bars, and it’s something we all have to work together to stop.”

Currently, it is a Class 1 misdemeanor in North Carolina to give an inmate a cell phone or other wireless communications device.

DOC spokesman Keith Acree says prisoners caught with a cell phone are subject to a Class A infraction, the most serious level. Punishments can range from up to 60 days in solitary confinement or three to six months of lost privileges.