Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – What is it about these people? Why haven’t they gotten it? Don’t they know cell phones in jail cells are illegal? How can the papers in Rio be full of stories about various crimes being plotted and commanded by bandidos inside prisons, using their cell phones–from their cells? Why can’t Brazil be like the U.S., where this could never happen?
Or so you thought, didn’t you? The slug for a recent New York Times article reads “Outlawed, Cellphones Are Thriving in Prisons”. Being a thoroughgoing Carioca, the Curmudgeon’s first reaction was “Gee whiz, another article about Brazil!” Boy, was the Curmudgeon ever wrong! The article details the rampant cellphone use in federal and state prisons across the United States of America,.
To paraphrase Woody Guthrie: “This [b]and is your [b]and, this [b]and is my [b]and, from California to the New York island.” The band in question is broadband, allocated to mobile phones the length and breadth of the U.S.—including its jails. Or, putting it another way, “bandidos” are now, often, “broadbandidos”.
How can this be? Doesn’t the U.S. have laws prohibiting cellphones in jails? How do they get in? Who pays the phone bills? Why aren’t phones confiscated? Why aren’t the signals blocked? In other words, the identical questions everybody here in Rio asks.
Sadly, the answers are identical. Yes, there are both state and federal laws prohibiting cellphones in prisons, even prison officials are often covered. President Obama signed a law making possession of a cell phone in federal prison a felony. But guess what? They still get in, by the thousands.
How do they get in? The biggest smugglers, there and here, are corrupt prison guards and family members. In the U.S., few prisons have metal detectors for all visitors, but where they do, low-tech comes to the rescue: suppliers heave the phones over the wall into the yard, at a time that’s been pre-arranged by somebody in the prison, probably using a cell phone! When they say “Incoming!” they don’t necessarily mean calls.
Why not jam all signals from inside the jail? The cell phone industry, there as here, claims that can’t be done without blocking signals from citizens who live near the prison, which would be illegal. The industry is suspect, of course, because bills are paid by family and friends, and the industry hates to lose well-paying customers.
So why not search prison cells regularly? Lack of manpower? Maybe, but payoffs to guards doubtless ensure nothing will be found. In the U.S., the high-tech solution being used by the State of Mississippi seems better. It has set up a network around the prison which monitors all traffic in and out, voice or text, and any phone not on an approved list is rendered useless. Bye, bye, bandwidth!
Unsurprisingly, the bleeding heart lobby in the U.S. is now saying prisoners ought to be allowed to have cell phones, on the grounds that much use is not criminal, it’s inmates keeping in touch with their families, which will help them successfully re-enter society. The article quotes one prisoner as saying he uses his phone to speak to his son before he boards a school bus. The Curmudgeon wonders what he uses it for when he’s not talking to his son.
Michael Royster, aka THE CURMUDGEON first saw Rio forty-plus years ago, moved here thirty-plus years ago, still loves it, notwithstanding being a charter member of the most persecuted minority in (North) America today, the WASPs (google it!)(get over it!)