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Uncle Sam makes it easier for inmates to order a hit from behind prison walls
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

Want to make top dollar for your used smartphone?

Do what apparently hundreds of people do and sell them to inmates incarcerated in California prisons for everything from murder and fraud to dealing in large meth shipments.

The phones that can fetch as much as $3,500 behind bars can’t have their signals jammed because state governments are prohibited from doing so under a rule interpretation that the Federal Communications Commission says essentially only allows federal agencies to jam air waves.

It’s been documented endless times that the contraband phones are used by inmates to arrange murders, move drugs, harass their victims, orchestrate hits on correctional officers, coordinate escapes, and perpetuate Internet fraud on taxpayers who are picking up the bill for their incarceration.

So why doesn’t congress pass a law? Good question. The answer won’t surprise you. Wireless firms so far have fought back attempts in Congress to give states the authority to jam cell phone signals arguing it may interfere with legitimate calls.

Last month Arkansas U.S. Senator Tom Cotton and Tennessee Congressman David Kustoff introduced companion bills aimed at giving state prisons the right to jam the signals of contraband cell phones smuggled into prisons.

While the federal government doesn’t use the technology at its prisons, a test last year at a federal penitentiary in Cumberland, Maryland successfully jammed the signal of a cell phone used inside a prison cell hundreds of yards away without interfering with the use of a cellphone just 20 feet away.

California tried to work around the FCC regulation a few years back by hiring a firm to put in place a local wireless system around state prisons that required accessing the domain name to allow cell signals to reach cell phones inside prisons. The first year it was in service the system intercepted and blocked 350,000 calls and texts. While it wasn’t 100 percent effective it significantly slashed Illegal communication. Within a few years it was virtually worthless. The state opted not to renew the contract with the firm that put local cell services around 18 state prisons. That’s because ever-changing cell phone and wireless technology chipped away at the local system’s effectiveness making it virtually impossible to stop the illegal calls.

California law stipulates prisoners caught with an illegal cell phone can get up to 90 days taken off their good time credit that goes toward an early release. Unscrupulous prison staff or outside parties caught smuggling the phones can get fines up to $5,000 per device and/or up to six months in county jail.

More than 13,000 illegal cell phones are seized annually from California state prisoners.

So how do the prisoners get the phones? Some are smuggled in; some are provided by unscrupulous correctional officers supplementing their income.

The prices paid for the phone would make Tim Cook’s i-Phone pricing seem like it is modeled after Dollar General’s pricing strategy. Reports show that prisoners pay two to five times the retail price for smartphones even though the devices they often buy have been in use for months if not years.

So how does contraband flow relatively so freely?

The short answer is we don’t let the professionals — correctional officers — do their jobs. Instead we fawn over prisoners’ rights and whether we are incarcerating too many people.

As an example, there is a movement in Sacramento to do away with the flexibility that the Department of Corrections has to use solitary confinement and such to control gangs behind prison walls. If you don’t think gangs are well organized forces in state prisons and can’t actually orchestrate murders, violent acts and drug syndicates on the outside from the comfort of their taxpayer supplied cell then you’re likely to believe a “reformed” serial pedophile can be trusted to babysit your kids or grandkids.

You can’t simply issue them demerits as if they were errant school children although more than a few prison reformers believe that is all it can take.

These are cold-blooded ruthless people. Getting sent to prison in California takes a lot of work on the part of a criminal.

The response of some pushing prisoners’ rights is that it is cruel punishment and unfair. They nicely gloss over the reality that correctional officers spend a lot of their time keeping prisoners from severely injuring or killing other prisoners. They also like to think it is prison and incarceration strategies aimed at “keeping the peace” that turn criminals into monsters.

It is that logic that drives some who support Gov. Gavin Newsom’s effort to dismantle the death penalty by contending it won’t increase the murder rate.

That faulty logic goes out the window when you’ve got a lifer without chance of parole imprisoned for murder or other violent acts behind bars. What do they have to lose for killing another inmate or a correctional officer? Another life sentence is redundant and superfluous to say the least.

Don’t be surprised if the legislation to give states the right to jam cell signals in and around prisons runs into turbulence from prisoner rights groups. They’d probably argue inmates are as entitled to free cell phones on the public’s dime as are the poor on the outside.

That’s on top of those in pursuit of the almighty dollar worried that jamming devices could somehow cut into their profits. Assuming only a quarter of the phones illegally in use behind prison walls today are seized in any given year, there are 52,000 illegal cell phones in the hands of inmates in California alone.

That’s some serious jack that is being shelled out to access wireless service whether inmates receive smuggled in prepaid cards or else count on someone on the outside to pay their wireless bill.

If would seem there are only two things stopping the empowerment of states to jam wireless signals in and around prisons. One is corporate greed and the other is the unadulterated coddling of convicted murderers, drug dealers, and the other dregs of society.

It is insane that the technology exists to stop convicted criminals from carrying out even more violent and life destroying crime from behind bars but we can’t deploy it because the majority of the 535 members of Congress are beholden to the campaign funds supplied by telecommunication firms won’t pass legislation to allow it to happen.

And if the the “woe is the hardened criminal crowd” uses the tact that eradicating  contraband cell phones is somehow unfair then we have some questionable stances that are undermining our society that was built on law and order.