Illegal cellphone use in prison generates severe security risks, but fortunately, digital wireless containment systems, or WCS, now offer advanced technological capabilities to block unauthorized phone use while ensuring that legitimate connections go through when needed. A recent article posted at Dailycaller.com highlighted the scope of the problem of prison corruption, illegal cellphone use and using contraband phones to order and orchestrate assassinations and other illegal activities. The article describes an assassination attempt against Captain Robert Johnson of Bishopville, South Carolina. Johnson, a prison guard working at the Lee Correctional Institution, had been instrumental in detecting and seizing more than 5,000 illegal phones during his career.
Using insights gained while working for military intelligence for 23 years, Johnson put a serious crimp in prisoners’ attempts to smuggle and use cellphones while incarcerated. The result was that prisoners used a phone to organize a home invasion and assassination attempt against Johnson on the morning of March 5, 2010. Although the attempt failed, Johnson was shot, and he incurred more than $1 million in medical expenses that the state helped to pay. There are many more examples of prisoners using cellphones to plan murders and crimes:
- Sex Money Murder Crew
A member of the Sex Money Murder gang, an offshoot of the Bloods, ordered the murder of a baby while in a Georgia prison.
- GAO Reports Identity-Theft Ring
The Government Accountability Office reported that a federal prisoner ran an identity-theft ring while incarcerated.
- Indiana Methamphetamine Ring
Two Indiana inmates ran a meth distribution ring from prison using their cellphones. The prisoners also sold heroin and other drugs.
- Oklahoma Social Crime
In Oklahoma, prisoners used illegal phones to update their Facebook accounts.
- Prosecutors Father Kidnapped
In North Carolina, nine people were charged with kidnapping a prosecutor’s father. Illegal phones figured prominently in this conspiracy.
- Assistant Warden’s Daughter Murdered
An escaped inmate from Louisiana is suspected of murdering the assistant warden’s daughter.
Smuggling Mobile Phones Generates the Currency of Choice in Prison
Getting access to banned mobile phones is important in prison. Gangsters and organized criminals can keep in touch with their associates on both the inside and outside of prison walls. Inmates can continue to run their gangs, and mob bosses can run organized criminal activities–such as prostitution, bookmaking and drug trafficking–without breaking a sweat. The problem grows increasingly pervasive because prison staff members often fall victim to extortion, blackmail and bribery, so many become willing or unwilling participants in these crimes. Creative smugglers hide phones in prisoner rectums, hollowed-out books, Bibles, stacks of legal documents, prosthetic legs, bandaged limbs and footballs thrown over the fence into recreational yards.
Creative smuggling ideas are only limited by technological barriers and inmate creativity. One smuggler packaged a phone in a fully sealed pack of ramen noodles. Phones have been found in babies’ diapers, private visitor areas and in ponds outside of prison walls where they’re sealed in plastic bags and identified by floating two-liter soda bottles used as floats.
The Federal Communications Commission conducted research that concluded there were more than 8,700 illegal cellphones in U.S. jails and prisons between the years of 2012 and 2014, and that’s just the number that can reasonably be estimated based on those phones that were found and confiscated.  The true figure could be considerably higher.
Cellphone Abuse in Prisons Generates Severe Security and Safety Risks
Securus, a manufacturer of wireless containment systems, uses its technology to control both authorized and unauthorized phone calls. In that capacity, the company is able to compile data about illegal cellphone use. Securus reports that between July of 2016 and July of 2017, there were more than 1.7 million unauthorized communication attempts in those prisons that use the company’s WCS technology. 
Securus Develops a Winning Anti-Transmission Technology
Despite efforts to change the law to allow prisons to jam phone transmissions, this solution raises almost as many problems as it solves. Phones have played major roles in protecting staff members who work in prisons. That’s why WCS has proven to be such an effective tool for controlling phone use in prisons. Prison officials can not only block transmissions but also mine illegal communications for intelligence about crimes, incriminating conversations and clues about the location of missing persons and bodies.
Unlike jamming, WCS treats each signal in a unique way. Depending on the predefined rules, any call can be blocked, monitored or put through normally. The process generates actionable data such as information about the number of illegal cellphones, what type of calls are being made and whether staff members are following prison policies. Monitoring unauthorized calls can provide invaluable information to prison officials.
The Challenge of Keeping Unlawful Phones out of Prison
Keeping every prohibited phones out of prison is almost impossible because inmates and their outside associates spend an incredible amount of their time and resources plotting ways to circumvent rules, regulations and obstacles. Inmate creativity knows few limits, and there are always corrupt guards and internal staff who can be bribed to supply contraband or to allow prisoners to use their personal phones for a price.
Pervasive Prison Access to Phones: Stories and Stats
Examples of unauthorized cellphone use in prison saturate media reports and journalistic investigations. One high-profile example of cellphone use in prison is the case of a prisoner who filmed a 3.5-minute video of a 31-year-inmate brandishing a knife. The video was filmed at Evans Correctional Institution and focused on inmate Jose Ariel Rivera. The video was posted on Facebook Live.
Solutions for Limiting Illegal Phone Use in Prison
Prisons could jam all cellphone transmissions, but there are two big problems with this approach. The first is that jamming cellphones is illegal in the United States. The second problem is that prison staff needs their own phones for communicating, security planning, collaborating with staff and ensuring their personal safety and security.
Most solutions now focus on managing-access services such as wireless containment. Other solutions include using trained dogs to sniff out contraband phones. Outside towers can intercept all cellular transmissions, but these are expensive to build and maintain. Digital-mode wireless containment systems offer an excellent mix of effective control and reasonable development costs. Securus is one of the companies building WCS technology for prisons. Headquartered in Dallas, Texas, the company already services more than 3,450 public service agencies involved in law enforcement and corrections. The company’s reach covers the phone habits of some 1,200,000 inmates. These services include preventing illegal phone use, managing incidents, monitoring unauthorized calls for prison intelligence and fostering better emergency responses.
Best Practices for Containing and Managing Wireless Transmissions
Prisons will continue to struggle with security issues as long as criminals are incarcerated. Inmates–with nothing better to do–continue to exercise their creative talents in negative ways. Criminals can use mobile phones to taunt witnesses, plan enemy assassinations, extort civilians, diagram escape routes, control gangs and manage illegal enterprises. Hero and spokesperson Captain Robert Johnson learned how committed inmates could be to their illegal phones when a prisoner planned Johnson’s assassination in retribution for his aggressive pursuit of contraband phones at Lee Correctional Institution.
Although Johnson has supported changing the law to allow the complete jamming of transmissions in jails and prisons, this approach is impractical. The jamming approach could put prison staff at-risk during riots and organized escape attempts, and the jamming doesn’t discriminate to allow prison officials to collect actionable data and intelligence to prevent and solve crimes. There are many solutions that include developing the technology to detect all 2G/3G/4G and Wi-Fi devices, building cell-tower capture systems, using dogs to locate phones by smell and tightening internal controls and procedures. None of these works as well right out-of-the-box as WCS systems such as the one developed by Securus. Of course, criminal ingenuity evolves rapidly, so the best strategy is to use all the available tools to run secure prisons while protecting the safety of prison staff, inmates, law enforcement agents and civilians.