Smartphones in prison: Equivalents of swiss army knives?

Posted on January 3, 2011  /  0 Comments

In the early 1990s, I wrote a conference paper that included a discussion of whether or not prisoners should be allowed to use phones; whether that use should be supervised; and how it should be charged. A revised version of the paper read at Columbia was published: Samarajiva, R. (1996). Consumer protection in the decentralized network, in Private networks, public objectives, eds. E. Noam & A. Nîshúilleabháin, pp. 287-306. Amsterdam: Elsevier. The policy implications section does not seem to have become dated, to my great relief, especially because it remains one of my favorites from that period:

Access to the public network via private networks by involuntary inmates of institutions poses a somewhat easier problem. These consumers have always had their physical-space egress and ingress controlled. Extending that control to electronic space does not mark a radical change. The only problematic areas are where the levels of control in the two forms of space differ dramatically, or where the manner of control is inconsistent with contemporary standards for the treatment of incarcerated persons. The formulation of the problem as one involving two different forms of social space enables research to be conducted, or policy to be formulated based on value judgments. If the applicable values hold that solitary confinement for long periods of time is cruel and unusual punishment, it would not be unreasonable to infer that complete prohibition of access to the public network also constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. In the same way that prisoners are allowed different forms of interactions in physic al space, ranging from conjugal visits to guard-observed, no-physical contact conversations, prisoners may be allowed different forms of electronic-space interactions as well.

Conceptualizing incarceration as the coercive restriction of a person’s ability to constitute physical and electronic spaces leads to an interesting idea for releasing pressure on prison space. Why not punish certain kinds of crimes by restricting the ability to constitute electronic spaces only? The Secret Service and other law enforcement agents pursuing “hackers” and “crackers” appear to have hit upon this idea before anybody else, evidenced by their proclivity to “confiscate” all network interface equipment in the suspects’ households. There is an apocryphal story about Kevin Mitnik (one of earliest “phreakers” to be apprehended) being served with an injunction not to go within five feet of a telephone. I have suggested on an earlier occasion (Samarajiva, 1991b) that obscene and harassing callers should be punished by having network privileges withdrawn or curtailed. I recognize that problems of enforcement and civil liberties must be carefully examined. Yet, the idea of meting out electronic punish ment for electronic crimes, which could also affect recidivism, appears to be worth serious consideration.

The reason all this was brought up, is the new concern about smartphones in prison, as reported by the NYT:

Technology is changing life inside prisons across the country at the same rapid-fire pace it is changing life outside. A smartphone hidden under a mattress is the modern-day file inside a cake.

“This kind of thing was bound to happen,” said Martin F. Horn, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “The physical boundaries that we thought protected us no longer work.”

Although prison officials have long battled illegal cellphones, smartphones have changed the game. With Internet access, a prisoner can call up phone directories, maps and photographs for criminal purposes, corrections officials and prison security experts say. Gang violence and drug trafficking, they say, are increasingly being orchestrated online, allowing inmates to keep up criminal behavior even as they serve time.

“The smartphone is the most lethal weapon you can get inside a prison,” said Terry L. Bittner, director of security products with the ITT Corporation, one of a handful of companies that create cellphone-detection systems for prisons. “The smartphone is the equivalent of the old Swiss Army knife. You can do a lot of other things with it.”

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