Inmates smuggling cellphones into Oklahoma prisons wasn't that big a deal 10 years ago.
But today, cellphones have become one of the most sought-after contraband items in Oklahoma's prisons. Just since 2010, the number of cellphones confiscated by prison staff has grown considerably.
Through September of this year, corrections staff members already have snatched up 1,833 cellphones at Oklahoma's prisons. In 2010, there were just 1,070 cellphones confiscated by prison staff, while there were 1,383 in 2011.
Prison officials say cellphones are sought-after because they allow inmates to have unmonitored conversations — whenever they want. It also helps inmates smuggle in things such as drugs, cigarettes and other coveted items prisoners pay steep prices to get their hands on.
“The more cellphones you have in the hands of prisoners, the more drugs, cigarettes and other contraband you're going to see,” Corrections Department spokesman Jerry Massie said. “It's a natural progression. It allows them to … be better coordinated, I guess you could say.”
Massie said the top three contraband items in Oklahoma prisons today are drugs, cigarettes and cellphones.
While steep prices for drugs and cigarettes are well-documented in prisons, Massie said a cellphone can fetch anywhere between $100 and $600 — and that's just what he's heard.
“They're quite valuable, for obvious reasons,” he said.
In Oklahoma County, a woman was arrested earlier in the year on complaints of smuggling two phones into the county jail. She told investigators she was offered $2,000 to deliver the phones — and chargers — to an unnamed inmate.
But cellphones can be used for more than just acquiring more contraband, Massie said.
“Inmates can use them to coordinate escape attempts,” he said. “That's something we're hearing and seeing more of over the past few years.”
Massie said that cellphones have become an issue “over the last five or six years,” as the devices have become cheaper and even more ubiquitous.
“As they gotten smaller and smaller, they're just much easier to conceal and that much easier to smuggle larger amounts of them in at once,” he said.
What can be done?
Massie said the growing problem of contraband cellphones is being combated with shakedowns and other traditional measures.
He said other states are experimenting with technologies that prevent inmates with cellphones from placing outgoing calls — measures that appear to be working.
Prisons cannot simply “block the signal” to the entire area in and around the prison, Massie said, because it's against Federal Communications Commission regulations.
In Texas and California, the prison systems are using “managed-access devices,” which essentially intercept cellphone signals coming out of the prison and only allows approved phone calls to be made.
In both states, the company that provides phone service to the inmates is paying for the technology.
Texas has at least two prisons utilizing themanaged-access devices, and California has been using similar technology for even longer.
“We don't have anything like that in Oklahoma … no plans for anything right now,” Massie said. “But we're certainly keeping an eye on the situation.”
Texas prison officials cracked down on contraband cellphones after condemned killer Richard Tabler called a state senator with a mobile device and threatened him.
It was later discovered that other Texas death row inmates had used cellphones to call the outside world they'd been so carefully isolated from.
As for why contraband cellphones are proliferating in Oklahoma, Massie said it's a combination of factors — not just a monetary issue.
“I also think you're getting a generation of people who are used to cellphones,” Massie said. “They get to prison, some of them, they want to have that cellphone still. More people have cellphones than landlines now … so it's not surprising.”