On January 2, 2014, a vendor truck approached the entrance to the Sierra Conservation Center, a mid-sized state prison nestled in the sleepy foothills town of Jamestown, California. Guards were stationed at the entrance, along with Duchess, a female Belgian Malinois who works in the K-9 contraband unit of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. As the driver waited to be let in, Duchess began to sniff around the rear of the truck. Suddenly, she began whining excitedly. Something, it seemed, was in there.
When officers inspected the truck, they found a cornucopia of contraband: three tubes of Krazy Glue, four tubes of Gorilla Glue, six rolling papers, and three and a half pounds of loose-leaf tobacco. But the most valuable part of the haul wasn’t the drugs. It was a plastic bag containing cell phones – fifteen in all, accompanied by a dozen chargers.
Given the importance of digital connectivity in today’s world, maybe it’s no surprise that cell phones have joined drugs and weapons as the contraband of choice in correctional institutions all over the country. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has seized more than 30,000 cell phones from state facilities since 2012. In 2013 alone, Florida’s corrections department confiscated 4,200 cell phones from the state’s prisons. Sometimes, contraband phones trickle into prisons one by one; other times, they arrive all at once. A single 2013 raid on a medium-sized prison in East Texas netted 45 cell phones and 52 chargers, which had been buried in an underground cache for retrieval.
Jails and prisons are supposed to be technological dead zones. In all but the laxest minimum-security facilities, cell phones are banned for inmates, as are personal laptops, tablets, and other Internet-connected devices. Federal prisons have implemented CorrLinks or TRULINCS, e-mail systems that allow inmates to send monitored messages to pre-approved contacts. But the wider Internet remains off-limits. In many prisons, the most up-to-date device approved for ordinary inmate use is the pay-phone.
Under the surface, though, America’s correctional institutions are buzzing with illicit tech activity. Some inmates use contraband cell phones to send selfies and texts to loved ones. Others use Facebook and Twitter to complain about their living conditions, and organize collective actions with inmates at other prisons. Inmates’ desire for access to the bounty of the Internet – and correctional officers’ desire to keep those tools away from them – has created new tensions on both sides.
“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” said Dana Simas, a public information officer for California’s corrections department. “There’s literally an infinite numbers of ways cell phones come in, and it’s not possible to make sure every avenue is cut off.”
A month-long Fusion investigation turned up dozens of social media profiles of inmates currently serving time in several states, many of whom were frequent users of the services in question. Some inmates appeared to be accessing the Internet through proxies – a family member who had the inmate’s Facebook password, for example, and was using the account to relay messages – while other inmates appeared to be accessing the sites directly from their cells.
“Been on lock down for two weeks…going into the third week. Letters would be great. Money would be a blessing. If I have to choke down one more bologna sandwich I think I might snap….,” wrote one Facebook user last October. The user, whose name matches that of a current federal prisoner in West Virginia, appears to have posted to his Facebook profile from two other prisons where he was previously housed.
“Hello everyone, wanted to say hi and let u know I’m currently on an extended lock-down,” wrote another federal inmate, who is serving time for armed robbery at a high-security facility in Texas. “Dont worry I’m nit [sic] in trouble the lock-down is due to a big incident that happened between two gangs at my location,” the inmate wrote. (Names of both inmates have been redacted to protect them from disciplinary action.)
Other social networks, too, are filled with evidence of contraband activity. One Vine user, who goes by “Acie Bandage,” has posted dozens of six-second videos of himself and his fellow inmates dancing, goofing off, and doing impersonations from their prison cells. (The user wraps a bandage around his face during the videos to disguise his identity — click here to see more of his videos, which are really quite something.)
[Update: it appears that “Acie Bandage” has deleted his Vine account. Below is an archived clip of one of his videos.]