If you think the mobile phone explosion of recent years has somehow been kept at bay by prison walls, you would be greatly mistaken. Technology, like water, permeates every crack. Today on Lockdown, we’re talking phones in jail.
In prison, a mobile phone is an extremely coveted item — one that easily fetches hundreds of dollars on the black market. Not surprisingly, prisoners go to great lengths to get them. Lengths that might make a normal person throw up. Warning: This is rough stuff.
When we asked Sergeant Don McGraw how mobile phones make their way into San Quentin, he turned to Sam Robinson, our CDC liaison and asked, “How deep do you want me to go with this?” Sam replied, “As deep as you want to go.” We knew we were in for something special.
Of all the shocking things we saw that day, perhaps the most shocking was a Samsung Captivate. It has a 4-inch screen. It’s 4.78 inches long, 2.5 inches wide, and almost half an inch thick. And it was up somebody’s arse. Yes, an iPhone up the arse is bad, as is the BlackBerry Storm you see there, but man the Captivate made my eyes cross just thinking about it.
Smartphones are especially coveted in prison, not surprisingly. Aside from being able to more easily email, search the web and communicate, this is arguably the main way prisoners are getting their porn now. Porn, as you might imagine, is a very hot commodity in the big house.
Most of the phones that are discovered are of the prepaid variety, which makes them extremely hard to trace. Most of the time, when phones are found they are locked and have had their SIM cards removed. In cases where they recover a phone with a SIM card they attempt to unlock it and scour it for data: phone numbers they called, text messages, emails and any photos they may have taken.
Sergeant McGraw said that while other prisons have a much bigger problem with phones being brought in (especially prisons in more rural areas), he’s noticed a huge jump at San Quentin just within the last year. He estimates that roughly 10 per cent of the population in San Quentin have mobile phones, which is a stark contradiction to the 1 per cent estimate inmate Sam Johnson gave us just an hour earlier.
There are many different ways that phones come in. Officer Patao mentioned the inmate crews that work for Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation). The correctional officers have made it much more difficult for this to work by making sure that inmates have no idea where they’ll be working on any given day. But if they are on a larger, week-long assignment in one area, it still happens. He also talked about drop points within the San Quentin grounds.
So, now you know all about illegal mobile phones in prisons. But what about the phones they are legally allowed to use? As a bonus video, here’s inmate Sam Johnson giving us a quick once-over on how those work, too. They look exactly like I remember phone booths from the ’80s, minus the coin slot. I can’t remember when I last saw that PacBell logo. Seeing them again in a prison was like stepping out of a time machine. A time machine that dropped you in jail.
Lockdown is all about the technology inside prisons, from weapons to hacks, contraband to cooking, and everything in between. We’re bringing it to you directly from San Quentin State Prison in California. Tomorrow we’ll be exploring prison economy and how purchases are made, both legal and illegal.
Special thanks to Terry Thornton, Dana Toyama and Sam Robinson of the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation for facilitating this visit. Thank you to Sergeant Don McGraw, Officer Eric Patao and Officer Gino Whitehall for all of their time and help. And thanks to inmates Sam Johnson Sr, Richard Lawrence Alley, Shahid and Marvin Caldwell for sharing a slice of their lives with us.