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In most prisons, inmates are banned from possessing mobile phones due to their ability to communicate with the outside world and other security issues. Mobile phones are one of the most smuggled items into prisons. They provide inmates the ability to make and receive unauthorized phone calls, send email and text messages, use social media, and follow news pertaining to their case, among other forbidden uses.
Most mobile phones are smuggled in by prison staff, who often do not have to go through security as rigorous as visitors. Security of staff is often less intense because this would be time-consuming on the part of the staff, thereby requiring they get paid for this time, and increasing the overall cost of operations. More rarely, they are smuggled in by visitors, who must undergo tougher security checks, by inmates who are permitted to leave, or by outsiders who establish contact with inmates alongside the prison fence.
Once inside prison walls, the devices end up in the hands of inmates who purchase them with cash, which is also contraband in most prisons. Black market prices vary by prison, and can be up to $1000.
While some prisoners use their mobile devices simply for harmless communication or web browsing, others use them for illegal activity. These may include gang control, taunting witnesses, planning escapes, or arrangement of other serious crimes.
Not all inmates use mobile phones for harmful purposes. Many inmates use them to hold innocuous conversations with family and friends. In South Carolina in September 2012, an inmate using an illegal mobile phone alerted authorities about an officer being held hostage, leading to that officer's rescue.
Laws have been passed in various jurisdictions, placing penalties on inmates who possess mobile devices as well as staff who smuggle them in. Inmate penalties range from loss of privileges and behavior credits to additional sentencing. Staff penalties range from disciplinary action to job loss to criminal charges.
Consideration has been given to using cell phone jammers inside of prison walls to render them ineffective. The practice of jamming cell phone signals is illegal in the United States. Exceptions to this law have been considered for prisons, though there is concern that a cell phone could be a guard's lifeline in a crisis, and other rescuers may need to use them for communication.
Some places are using an experimental technology of managed communications that blocks the communications of inmates while continuing to allow that of others.
Special dogs have been used to sniff for cell phones coming into prison walls. Mobile phones have a unique scent, and these dogs have been trained to detect it.