FACEOFF: Should Inmates Be Allowed to Have Their Phones in Jail?

Katriona Page and Gianna Hutton

Yes (K.P.)

The U.S. prison system home to 2.3 million people as of Mar. 2020 is notoriously unpleasant, with many prisons denying their inmates adequate living conditions and a sense of dignity. Many prisons only allow their occupants the absolute bare minimum earplugs, foam flip flops, prescription medicine and contact information — making an already difficult situation even worse. 

While I am not advocating for a lavish prison experience — after all, prisoners are there (hopefully) because they committed a crime — allowing inmates to keep their phones first and foremost means prisoners are much less likely to lose sight of who they were prior to incarceration. Phones allow prisoners to easily keep in touch with friends and family. This is incredibly crucial, because, as multiple studies have shown, strong relationships are absolutely essential to a happy, healthy, fulfilling life. In the case of prisoners, a strong correlation exists between greater happiness and strong connections and lower recidivism rates and success in life after prison. With such large benefits, why not do everything possible to encourage and cultivate prisoners’ relationships?

It is not enough for prisoners to make the occasional call home (prisoners only receive 300 minutes of call time per month, or a ten minute call per day, and only if they can afford it). The more interaction prisoners get with family and friends, the more often they are reminded of what is at stake, and the more often they are encouraged to make the right decisions. Knowing they have family or friends waiting for them — relationships that can easily fizzle out without enough maintenance — provides prisoners with hope and something to look forward to once they finish their sentence. It makes them feel connected to society and humanity; it makes them feel like an individual again.

Additionally, banning phones makes it difficult for inmates to readjust once they reenter our phone-based society. With our phones constantly feeding us up-to-the-minute information, losing that can come as a shock, just as regaining it does. If the U.S. expects inmates to be well-adjusted, functioning members of society after prison, the country should do whatever it can to ease the transition and make prison life more similar to the real world. Allowing inmates their phones, now an omnipresent, essential tool, can do that. 

Peoples’ primary issue with allowing phones is that phones give inmates technology that enables them to commit crimes from jail. Prisons should make a decision on a case by case basis and look at an inmate’s background; all inmates should not receive the exact same treatment. Prisons need to look at the likelihood of someone committing another crime by distinguishing between those who have committed serious crimes and are a real threat to society and those who have made mistakes.

While some prisoners still might try to use their cellphones inappropriately, prisons could easily monitor activity and restrict hateful or provocative sites. Prisons could also rework phones so that, for example, only the messaging feature remains accessible. If prisons are afraid that inmates will keep in touch with people who might have a negative influence, they could only grant access to approved contacts. While it might require a little extra time and money, the benefits to the millions of prisoners who just want to maintain their relationships makes it worth it. 


No (G.H)

The United States prison system has severe flaws, with a recidivism rate of over 64% for those convicted of violent offenses and 40% for non-violent offenses as of 2019, according to a U.S. Sentencing Commission report. However, the system must undergo strategic improvements to shift the reality behind the mass incarceration system away from retribution to rehabilitation. Allowing personal cell-phone usage has proven itself ineffective on a national and global scale, and would weaken the already-defective incarceration system while wasting funding that could go to improving the inmates’ quality of life. 

According to The Tampa Bay Times, authorities confiscated more than 9,000 cellphones in Florida prisons between 2017 and 2018 — roughly one for every nine inmates in the state. While rampant, the harsh reality behind the current contraband cell phone system is that inmates use them to run identity and theft and drug rings, run scams and extort money, intimidate witnesses, coordinate riots and protests and stream live videos, according to Berkeley Varitronics Systems. While a solution would seemingly lie in monitoring cell phones, major flaws arise within that logic. 

Granting inmates the ability to keep personal cell phones has circulated in the media for years. The Contraband Cell Phone Act, passed ten years ago, amends the federal criminal code to include phones as contraband. Since then, public efforts have risen around the idea of giving inmates access to cell phones — specifically, through the use of jamming technology. In theory, this would block unwanted calls to inmate cell phones; however, two major drawbacks make the implementation of this system impossible, according to the U.S. Department of Justice: it violates federal law and it blocks emergency calls in the prison as a whole, such as 9-11 calls. 

Federal law makes proposed solutions, including conscious tracking of mobile usage and cell phone jamming, illegal. The Communications Act of 1934 and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 prohibit the usage of cell phone jamming and the manufacturing, importation, marketing, sale or operation of devices designed to jam or interfere with wireless communications. Specifically, Section 333 of the Communications Act forbids the conscious interference with any licensed or authorized radio communications equipment operated by the United States government. 

Instead of spending copious amounts of money attempting to invest and create technology that would allow inmates to keep personal cellular devices, the United States should adopt strategies such as Norway — which has a mere 20% recidivism rate, according to Business Insider —  where inmates have access to phone areas for unlimited free use. The issues with mobile devices within prisons reveal deeper issues within the prison system that require attention and funding, rather than spending copious amounts of time and energy on an unsound debate. 

In the past few months, viral videos from inside prisons depict the conditions that have made the mass incarceration system a host for the coronavirus pandemic. The close quarters and inhospitable environment depicts the deeper need for reform within the U.S. prison system. Instead of focusing on whether or not inmates should have cell phone access, demands should address more pressing issues, such as inhumane living conditions, racial bias and increased risk of recidivism.