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?

The Curmudgeon, aka Michael Royster.
The Curmudgeon, aka Michael Royster.

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!)


  1. They get in via corrupt prison guards. Prison guards are underpaid, just like the Polica Militar. Many prison guards also partake in the police militias that control favelas in Zona Oeste…

    Even if you jam cell phone signals in prisons, it won’t make a difference. Prisoners are entitled to visitors – and so the cartel chiefs can still relay messages via them…

    But looking at the bigger picture… ‘drugs’ are not the problem of society… just a symptom of a broken system.

    I think it’s insane how everyone here in RJ blames everything on ‘trafficantes’ and cry out for a UPP in their neighborhood… naively thinking that will solve everything.


    R$1billion dollars to reform Maracana… documents showing that the crisis in the Serra could have been prevented (or at least reduced)… and more recently, in the news today, a federal senator who was previously the mayor of somewhere in Sao Paulo – who has tens of millions of suspect money in Swiss bank accounts…

    And yet… nobody calls for these corrupt politicians to go to jail… nooooo… it’s all the fault of ‘bandidos and trafficantes in the favelas’ who are responsible for Rio and Brazil’s problems….

    Fala serio…

  2. Come on Diego, please do not offend many Cariocas, do you possibly believe we are that stupid.

    As for many of your posts in this publication, I feel obliged to ask.

    Which side are you really in?

  3. I would say ‘oblivious’ rather than stupid. It’s a fact that the vast majority of middle-class and upper-class Cariocas have never even entered a favela – yet, make sweeping judgments about ‘faveladas’… and take an aggressive attitude towards ‘cleaning up the city’ and ‘eliminating the trafficantes’…

    Who’s side am i on..? With such a corrupt government and corrupt and violent policia militar – i would side with the trafficantes. What has the RJ state government done for the people..? Nothing…

    Now if the government actually made an investment in the people – education… increasing salaries, etc… then sure, i would change my opinion and switch sides…

    So Lilly – answer me this – why do Cariocas spend more time complaining about trafficantes… then the fact that politicians recently increased their salaries 126%… while increasing the minimum salary only 5%..? Or do people only think about themselves – and if they have a comfortable job with a good salary – not care if the rest of the population is suffering..?

    I live in Zona Sul and have a comfortable life…. but i have a conscience and open-mind and frequent bairros and favelas all over the city… i don’t hide behind some gated condominium like a prisoner…

  4. I think that Rio Times needs to publish a review of Dancing With The Devil – such an underrated film which every Carioca should see…


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