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Contraband Phones Aid Prison Underground Economy: Report

Contraband cell phones threaten the safety and security of people who are incarcerated, correctional staff, and the public. They can facilitate violence and perpetuate underground economies. The phones enter facilities through internal and external mechanisms; they can be brought in by facility staff, or they can be brought in by visitors, thrown over fences, or flown in on drones, a report by the Urban Institute finds. This report reviews emerging technological strategies for detecting, disabling, and removing contraband cell phones. Dozens of people involved in prison gangs operating within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation system were charged with homicides, smuggling drugs, and other crimes facilitated by contraband cell phones. Similarly, a 2018 riot in a South Carolina Department of Corrections prison was incited in part over access to contraband phones and resulted in the deaths of seven inmates and injuries to 17 others.


The technologies designed to detect or disable wireless devices are among the many solutions correctional administrators can use to combat contraband cell phones. Despite the widespread availability and use of these technologies in correctional settings, there has been little empirical research on their efficacy and officials do not yet know what returns they can expect on their investments of resources and staff. The report says there is a critical need for correctional agencies to collect more data and partner with researchers to better understand the degree to which these technologies can prevent the use of illicit cell phones and prevent harm to people inside and outside facilities.