The Fight Over Cellphones in Prisons Rages On (2024)

Loaded on Sept. 1, 2021 by Derek Gilna published in Prison Legal News September, 2021, page 28

Filed under: Cell Phone Access. Location: Mississippi.


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by Derek Gilna

The COVID-19 pandemic and resultant shut-downs have focused attention on the need for connection between all members of society, and for many prisoners, denied in-person visits, a contraband cellphone has helped them keep in touch with family. But that didn’t stop the Mississippi Supreme Court from affirming a 12-year sentence to Willie Nash for having a phone in the county jail. See: Nash v. State, 293 So. 3d 265 (Miss. 2020).

Although correctional officials claim that they can be used for fraud and extortion, just as state provided phones are, the fact remains that most prisoners understand that these phones are too valuable as family communication tools to be put at risk by committing other crimes.

Ten years ago, a New York Times article conceded that harsh penalties and increased vigilance weren’t working to keep phones out of prisons. “The logical solution would be to keep all cellphones out of prison. But that is a war that is being lost, corrections officials say.”

As noted by former death row resident Jarvis Jay Masters: “For people isolated from the world, hearing a loved one’s voice or a grandbaby coo for the first time is healing.”

The Times report interviewed Terry L. Bittner, a director of security products with the ITT Corporation at the time. He claimed that, “The smartphone is the most lethal weapon you can get inside a prison …. the equivalent of the old Swiss Army knife.” His company profits off contracts to develop cellphone-detection systems for prisons.

All prison studies have shown that a prisoner who attempts to maintain strong ties with his family and community while incarcerated is much less likely to recidivate upon his release. Approximately 600,000 individuals are released from prison and about the same from jail every year. It is estimated that they have over 2 million children on the outside, most of whom want to hear from their parent.

A 1972 study by the California Department of Corrections on the subject of maintaining family ties said, “The central finding of this research is the strong and consistent positive relationship that exists between parole success and maintaining strong family ties while in prison.” A 2012 Vera Institute of Justice study found that, “Incarcerated men and women who maintain contact with supportive family members are more likely to succeed after their release.”

Detention officials also don’t like to discuss the fact that in higher security institutions on the county, state, and federal level, the sale of overpriced cellphones, with prices climbing sometimes above $1,000, are a way for underpaid guards to supplement their income. This underground supply network, which sometimes supplies drugs and alcohol, does more to compromise prison security and prison guards than a mere phone. The widespread corruption inherent in the tens of thousands of cellphones entering prisons and jails across the country annually indicates that the staff smuggling the phones, do not feel threatened by them.

Some prisoner advocates, noting the inflated prices for jail phone cards and expensive phone calls, suggest that jails have a financial interest in forcing prisoners and their families to use the approved modes of communication, since most of them get a substantial kickback from the telecom company with the monopoly contract to exploit the prisoners and their families.

However, one former sheriff, David Taylor in South Carolina’s Union County handled the issue differently by selling cheap cellphones to help keep order in the jail. “This adds another method of safety to our facility because it takes away the mischief of the inmates sitting back there 24 hours a day with nothing to do,” the sheriff said in an interview. “Fighting. Different things. Confrontation with corrections officers.”

Perhaps yet another reason detention officials at the state and federal level prohibit cellphones is that it provides a way for prisoners to reveal to the outside world the depressing and often unsafe conditions in their institutions, as they did during the COVID-19 pandemic. Detention officials responded the way they always do to a crisis: locking everything down and limiting communications to the outside world. CNN, in April of 2020, broadcast prisoner video from an Alabama state prisons in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, where a prisoner remarked, “Death is imminent for us.” It also showed the deplorable living conditions, including non-functional toilets, expired food, and rat infestation.

Prisoners have used the phones to not only expose poor living conditions, but to assist in organizing protests, including labor and hunger strikes. They also show a humorous side, including cooking demonstrations of prison pizza, ramen recipes, and dance moves.

However, prison officials have the power to punish and prosecute cellphone offenders. In the case of Nash, a prisoner in a Mississippi jail cell whose phone was not taken from him when he was booked in, received a 12-year sentence, which was upheld by the Mississippi Supreme Court. “While obviously harsh,” Justice James D. Maxwell II wrote, “Nash’s twelve-year sentence for possessing a cell phone in a correctional facility is not grossly disproportionate.”

Southern Poverty Law Center attorney Will Bardwell, who is representing Nash, has stated that he intends to appeal the case to the nation’s high court.


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Related legal case

Nash v. State

Cite293 So. 3d 265 (Miss. 2020).
LevelState Court of Appeals
ConclusionBench Verdict

More from this issue:

  1. Mississippi Supreme Court Applies Pro Se Leniency in Reversing Dismissal of Prisoner’s Lawsuit Challenging Prison Disciplinary Action, by Matthew Clarke
  2. Nominal Representation Without Actual Representation: One Person, No Vote, by Edward Lyon
  3. Louisiana Bars Problem Doctors from Practicing Medicine in Most Hospitals. So They Treat Incarcerated People Instead., by Addy Baird
  4. California Female Prisoners Used as Honey Trap Bait for Rapist Guard, by Edward Lyon
  5. From the Editor, by Paul Wright
  6. Human Rights Defense Center Prevails in Censorship Lawsuit Against Napa County Jail, California, by Derek Gilna
  7. California State Auditor’s Report Faults Counties for Waste and Poor Oversight of State Funds Used in “Public Safety Realignment”, by Derek Gilna
  8. Modest Decline in Prison and Jail Populations in Spring 2021, by Matthew Clarke
  9. FCC Takes Further Action on Prison and Jail Phone Rates, by Chuck Sharman
  10. Seventh Circuit: PLRA Mandates Dismissal for Deceit on IFP Application, by David Reutter
  11. Federal BOP Overwhelmingly Denies Compassionate Releases During COVID, by Daniel A. Rosen
  12. HRDC Sues Florida DOC Over Censorship, for the Third Time in 18 Years, by Chuck Sharman
  13. Fourth Circuit: No Privacy Expectation Exists for Prisoner in Diagnosis and Treatment of HIV, by David Reutter
  14. Pandemic Medical Update: The Delta Surge, by Michael D. Cohen, MD
  15. These Meds Prevent Overdoses. Few Federal Prisoners Are Getting Them, by Beth Schwartzapfel
  16. Massachusetts Cop Indicted for Lying About Checking Cell of Prisoner Who Died of Drug Overdose
  17. New Clemency Rules Expected to Expedite Civil Rights Restoration in Florida, by Kevin Bliss
  18. Florida Files Environmental Lawsuit Against Phosphate Company Pollution, by Panagioti Tsolkas
  19. HRDC Sues Illinois DOC Under FOIA, Again, for GTL Contract Details, by Chuck Sharman
  20. The Fight Over Cellphones in Prisons Rages On, by Derek Gilna
  21. Lawsuit Over Alabama Private Mega-Prison Leases Dismissed, by Daniel A. Rosen
  22. San Diego Jail Approves Free Phone and Video Calls
  23. Eighth Circuit Holds Lack of “Clearly Established” Law Requiring Staffer to Notify of Prisoner’s Suicide Risk Prevented Damages, by Dale Chappell
  24. EPA Slams GEO Over Disinfectant Use at Private Prison, Federal Court Issues Preliminary Injunction to Stop It, by Dale Chappell
  25. $10 Million Settlement in Taser Death of Mentally Ill Man in South Carolina Jail, by David Reutter
  26. $750,000 Settlement in South Dakota Pretrial Detainee’s Overdose Death, by David Reutter
  27. Criminal Justice System Encourages Racism According to MIT Study, by Kevin Bliss
  28. US Marshalls Terminate Contract with GEO Snitch Camp at Queens NY Detention Facility, by Douglas Ankney
  29. California Begins Transfer of Prisoners to Facilities Consistent with Prisoners’ Gender Identity, by Douglas Ankney
  30. Florida’s Brutal Prison System Will Continue to Subsidize Rural Economies, With No Meaningful Reform in Sight, by David Reutter
  31. US DOJ Finds California Alameda County Jail in Violation of Constitution and ADA, by Matthew Clarke
  32. Ohio Guard Added to Sex Offender List and Sent to Prison for Sex with Detainee
  33. Report Shows COVID-19 Reduced Life Expectancy for Prisoners in Florida, Same Likely for Other States, by David Reutter
  34. $350,000 Settlement for New Mexico Pretrial Detainee in ‘Failure to Protect’ Claim, by David Reutter
  35. The Killing Fields: Three Alabama State Prisoners Murdered in Five Days, by Edward Lyon
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  48. Two Albuquerque Jailers Indicted for Killing Prisoner, by Matthew Clarke
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  54. News in Brief

More from Derek Gilna:

  • Federal Judge in Louisiana Issues Sweeping Opinion Finding Numerous Eighth Amendment, ADA and RA Violations at Angola, April 1, 2022
  • Human Rights Defense Center Prevails in Censorship Lawsuit Against Napa County Jail, California, Sept. 1, 2021
  • California State Auditor’s Report Faults Counties for Waste and Poor Oversight of State Funds Used in “Public Safety Realignment”, Sept. 1, 2021
  • The Fight Over Cellphones in Prisons Rages On, Sept. 1, 2021
  • District Court Extends Armstrong Order to Five Additional California Prisons, Sept. 1, 2021
  • HRDC Settles Censorship Lawsuit with Johnson County, Kansas Jail for $50,000 and Policy Changes, Aug. 1, 2021
  • Virginia Prosecutors to Dismiss 400 Drug Convictions Tied to Disgraced Cop, July 15, 2021
  • Discredited New York Police Detective’s False Testimony Causes the Dismissal of Close to 100 Drug Convictions, June 15, 2021
  • D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences Firearms Examination Unit Under Fire, April 15, 2021
  • Mississippi Joins Illinois and Few Other States Prioritizing Vaccination of State Prisoners to Slow Spread of COVID-19, April 1, 2021

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  • Use of Controversial Phone-Cracking Tool Is Spreading Across Federal Government, May 15, 2022. Cell Phone Access, Police State-Surveillance, Searches - Cellphones/Computers/Internet.
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  • New App Makes It Simple for Civilians to Record Police Encounters, Dec. 5, 2018. Videotaping, Cell Phone Access, Police.
  • FBI Admits Vastly Inflating Number of Unsearchable Mobile Devices, Dec. 5, 2018. Statistics/Trends, Cell Phone Access, FBI.
  • The Broad Reach of Carpenter v. United States, Sept. 19, 2018. Cell Phone Access, Fourth Amendment, rights, Police State-Surveillance.
The Fight Over Cellphones in Prisons Rages On (2024)


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