Smuggled Phones Help Cons Play FarmVille From Behind Bars

Just because you’re locked up, you shouldn’t have to miss out on texting buddies, logging status updates and playing FarmVille. Thanks to smuggling channels and intense demand, cell phones have become as much a part of the prison experience as lunchtime brawls and toothbrush shanks.

The New York Times reports prison workers confiscated untold thousands of phones from inmates last year — 9,000 last year in California alone. Prisoners can score the devices from guards, relatives and convicts, costing between $300 and $1,000, and associates on the outside pay the monthly bills to keep the phones going. The Times reports prisoners use phones for everything from coordinating riots to playing FarmVille.

“It is impossible to have enough staff to watch the two million people we have locked up in the country at this time,” said the director of South Carolina’s Department of Corrections. “In a perfect world, yes, we would find all the phones. But this isn’t a perfect world.”

Outlawed, Cellphones Are Thriving in Prisons [The New York Times]


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  1. Southern says:

    Easy enough to fix. Install Cell Phone jamming devices in every prison. Problem solved.

    • lehrdude says:

      Those would also be nice for movie theatres, trains and restaurants…

      • falnfenix says:

        until an emergency happens and no one can call emergency services.

        • Southern says:

          Well, movie theaters would still have a land line, and I wouldn’t expect them to ban cell phones in restaurants or (especially) trains. Too many people work while commuting to even THINK about banning them from trains, buses, etc.

      • AustinTXProgrammer says:

        Trains, really? So someone spending time commuting can’t be productive so you can sleep or read or something. You sound like a bigger jerk than the teenager saying “oh my god” over and over.

      • Ichabod says:

        Naw that’s what brick bats are for, nothing says STHU like a punch in the nose.

    • IphtashuFitz says:

      Jamming technology isn’t as polished as the movies would have you believe. To fully jam cell phone signals inside a prison you’d risk jamming legitimate users nearby the prison as well as interfering with other wireless communications within the prison. No prison would risk disrupting the radios used by the guards.

      • jenjenjen says:

        Prison designers should come out and visit the building where I work. It eliminates most cell phone use pretty effectively. Sigh.

        • myCatCracksMeUp says:

          My building does also – there is absolutely no cell phone signals inside, but just outside the door it works fine. This is by design for security reasons.

      • Southern says:

        If they installed one of those dedicated jammers that have a range of up to 5 miles, they might have an issue with the outside population.. but they also could get those that have a limited range of only a couple of hundred feet and just put them in the prisoner areas (cell blocks, gym, common rooms, etc.). Chances are, the blocking signal probably would not even breach the 4-foot thick walls, let alone affect anyone in any outside community.

        If they interfered with the prison radio systems, I agree that would be a problem. I just don’t see how a jammer that is designed to only block signal(s) on particular wavelengths such as 800MHz to 1900MHz would interfere with a radio system operating on a frequency in the 9600Mhz range, for instance.

    • JoeTheDragon says:

      What about makeing the price for in prsions calls be a lot lower and not be at rip off prices that cost about the price of a 1-900 sex line to make a phone call.

    • TheGreySpectre says:

      Except for if something goes wrong and someone tries to call 911. Jammers don’t selectively filter, they jam everything and there are numerous frequencies you have to cover as different carriers use different frequency bands. Also jammers don’t have an exact range, there is no it is active here and not active there, a jammer powerful enough to guarantee that no calls will be made within the jail will most likely disrupt a fair amount of calls around the jail as well.

  2. DJ Charlie says:

    Same thing I said on another site I frequent that linked to this article…

    FTA: “He does it all on a Samsung smartphone, which he says he bought from a guard.”

    That guard should be fired, and made to serve a sentence in the same prison.

    FTA: “President Obama signed a law in August making possession of a phone or a wireless device in a federal prison a felony, punishable by up to a year of extra sentencing.”

    Oooh, a whole YEAR! Like that means anything to anyone on death row.

    FTA: “He cited the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits the blocking of radio signals — or, in this case, cellphone signals — from authorized users.”


    FTA: “And in a world where hundreds of apps are introduced each day by developers hoping to tap new markets, a pool of prisoners with smartphones can seem an attractive new market, despite the implications.”

    And THIS is why nothing is being done about it.

    • lifesmyplaypen says:

      First comment… No guard would admit to it and no inmate would rat him out (lose his connection)
      Second comment… Agree, for life sentence inmates put them in the hole for a month, but for short term inmates the year long sentence can be HUGE
      Third comment… How about guards, warden, nurses etc… that work at or in or around the prisons?
      Fourth comment… I HIGHLY doubt that developers are looking at prison inmates as a potential client base… they have very limited access to advertise to them and it’s only people on the outside paying for the services anyways

      • RvLeshrac says:

        If the penalty for selling a cellphone to a felon inside a prison was placement in GP, I bet the guards would slow down a bit.

    • nbs2 says:

      I suspect the bigger impediment is potential complaints from the guards. I can’t think of any app developers that would be lobbying for prison access, but I can just imagine the most absurd worst case scenarios being trotted out to justify why guards need their cell phones while on duty.

      • Southern says:

        Cell Phones are already prohibited in most prisons, even for employees.

        That’s why jamming makes sense, since no one working there OR incarcerated there should be having one in the first place..

      • RedOryx says:

        As a former prison employee, I can tell you that cell phones are generally not allowed in prisons, even by employees. Exceptions were made, for our warden and deputy, so if anyone would complain it would be them, not the guards.

    • leprechaunshawn says:

      Those are all really good ideas except for one problem that I see with them. You want to hold people responsible for their actions. Generally speaking, we don’t do that anymore in the U.S. People are always looking for someone else to blame.

    • TheGreySpectre says:

      You can’t selectively block cellphone signals for only unauthorized users. That’s not how a jammer works, it blocks it for everybody. As everybody includes authorized users you can’t block them.

  3. tator says:

    South Carolina looked into jamming cell phone signals around some of its prisons, a fairly low cost, effective cure but ran into FCC issues. I would be happy to lose signal as I passed a prison to eliminate the problem. Most prisons are somewhat isolated so this really isn’t a big problem.

    • nbs2 says:

      Why not Faraday the buildings themselves? Then passers-by need not needlessly suffer.

      Also, is it appropriate to appropriate Faraday’s name for use as a verb?

      • dragonhunter21 says:

        My school is a beautiful example of a Faraday cage. Layer of concrete, chicken wire, another layer of concrete. Never stopped people from texting.

    • Midwest Doc says:

      You are spot-on. The FCC won’t allow cell phone jamming (wireless provider lobbyists have gotten to them).

  4. Captain Walker says:
  5. daemonaquila says:

    Really not a consumer issue.

    In the scale of issues regarding prisons, I frankly don’t give a rip. America’s incarceration rate is the highest in the world, beating out former champs like South Africa and the Soviet Union. To fill them, our criminal laws have been becoming insanely draconic. Why? Because, in part, of our *private* prison system that must not only be filled but constantly expanding for those companies to show a profit to their investors. This leads to the most abusive and corrupt prison system possible, and a warped criminal justice system. So, do I care if the victims of that system – even if they are rapists or major dealers versus the vast majority of minor offenders – do whatever they can to make their lives better? Nope.

  6. Tiercelet says:

    So . . . why’s this such a horrible thing?

    People in prisons are, y’know, people. Forbidding them from having any contact with the outside world is cruel, and the prison system is already punitive enough.

    Besides, these phones have been used in the cause of justice — such as coordinating a peaceful sit-down strike of forced prison laborers in Georgia, who were protesting both their totally uncompensated labor, and being denied medication and adequate food and temperatures by the (privatized, naturally) prison staff. [1] [2] (Hadn’t heard about it? Of course you didn’t. Why would you? You think USA Today’s going to run stories that question this system?)

    Anyway, half of you are probably playing FarmVille at work, so no high horses, please. It’s probably a better thing for prisoners to be doing than joining race gangs and shivving each other, yeah?

    [2] — and before you start going off on how people committed crimes, they gave up their rights to be treated decently, blah blah — keep in mind that forced prison labor is designed to keep wages low for American jobs, and that there have been several cases of judges intentionally convicting people and imposing longer sentences in order to drive down labor costs in their districts. The system isn’t so blameless as you’d like to think.

    • dragonhunter21 says:

      As a society, we’ve agreed that criminals don’t get as many rights as Joe Average. For example, when you’re convicted of a felony, you lose the right to vote. Why should we allow them the comforts of home when they’re serving time for a crime?

    • GearheadGeek says:

      They are NOT forbidden from all contact from the outside world, they’re just limited to channels of communication that can be reliably monitored.

      Prisoners are allowed to send and receive mail (that is subject to inspection) and to make phone calls on land-lines installed at the prison (that are subject to recording and monitoring.)

      Cell phones allow them to have unsupervised communications through which they can potentially conduct illegal activities.

      • Tiercelet says:

        The filters placed on inmate communication frequently violate stated inmate rights.
        For example, there’s an organization called the Prison Law Project which sends out manuals to prisoners containing legal information to help them start proceedings for themselves when their legally guaranteed rights are being violated (withholding of medication, religious issues, guard abuses, etc).

        Virginia prisons throw out any copies of these self-help manuals they can find. Why give prisoners access to the law, rite?

        If we had responsible prison management and oversight, then maybe I’d accept more universal monitoring of prisoner communications. As is, though, the legitimate uses for these phones are far more important than the possibility that they might be used to commit wrongdoing, or (as is more likely) used as a comfortable distraction by bored people.

      • daemonaquila says:

        Poor argument. Yes, prisoners can use land-lines, and that would be acceptable, except for the fact that the prison-industrial complex has found a way to make a fortune on these to the detriment of both prisoners and their HONEST but often dirt poor families and friends. To accept a prison call, the household must set up a special account with one of the prison phone companies, and pre-pay. The per-minute costs are exorbitant, and are borne by the recipient. Many of those families don’t even have a land line, and only are able to afford pre-paid cellular. Those kinds of phones can’t get any kind of calls from a prison. In many areas, even a regular cel phone can’t get calls.

        So hey, I’m fine with the prisoners messing with the system. If there was any kind of reasonable arrangement, it would be a different story. But until the prison system is taken out of the hands of private companies, the justice system is busted and people are going to do what they feel they have to do.

    • evilpete says:

      I feel prisoners should make a reasonable wage, but if they do they should also have to pay for room and board, offsetting the high cost of their internment .

      • RedOryx says:

        In Ohio at least, prisoners are paid. True, it’s only like $20/month, but still. And they get “three hots and a cot”

  7. Southern says:

    Here’s another thought.. do prisoners get access to electricity in their cells?

    If so, why? An easy solution to this might be simply to remove electrical outlets, and then the phones cannot be charged..

    • Outrun1986 says:

      There are portable battery chargers that run on AA batteries that could be easily smuggled in if a cell phone can get in.

  8. Ovular says:

    FarmVille’s a hell of a drug

  9. evilpete says:

    While this is interesting, are you on see how it relates to consumerist

  10. evilpete says:

    The trick is not to jam cell calls but instead setup your own cell site with a stronger preferred signal inside the jail at which point you selectively track / block / monitor any cell phones inside the prison

  11. evilpete says:

    The trick is not to jam cell calls but instead setup your own cell site with a stronger preferred signal inside the jail at which point you selectively track / block / monitor any cell phones inside the prison

  12. physics2010 says:

    1) I’d say just use a microcell site like they do in the malls, but I suppose there is a way to tell a cellphone not to connect to a certain cell site (hack). The microcell would just grab all the calls, but not be hooked to anything so the calls wouldn’t go through.

    2) You could place a jammer in the prison and then rent out the guard towers for cellphone companies to place their directional antennas on…all pointing outward from the prison. The jammer would nullify any side lobes.

    3) Start running stings on the guards. What else are they bringing in to the prison?

    • evilpete says:

      I am sure most cell companies would provide the micro cell interceptors at no charge in exchange to the tower access. I guess the only problem would be the prison workers union complaining about their member standing so close to active antennas .

  13. Southern says:

    Congrats Phil, you got Farked. :)

  14. Dan T. says:

    Why call ’em “cell phones” if you’re not supposed to use them from a cell?

  15. MongoAngryMongoSmash says:

    I used to think it would take six hundred years to get to level forty and a three star mastery of carrots. Old Andy did it in less than 20.

    Funny, I would have figured Mafia Wars instead of Farmville.