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When Banning Works Better than Blocking: Bill Proposes to Make Prison Cell (Phones) Contraband

July 22, 2010 , , , ,

The Associated Press brings us the news that both house of Congress have passed parallel bills to ban the use of cell phones and other wireless devices in federal prisons. The bill, S. 1749, was introduced to curb the illicit use of cell phones within prisons to conduct criminal business from inside prisons.

This solution stands in stark contrast to one that had been shopped around not too long ago by vendors of cell blocking tech, where prisons would install jammers to block cellular signals in and around prisons. Fortunately, instead of trotting out a technological solution (with its concomitant negative effects on legitimate users) to what is a broader problem, this bill attempts to address the problem by using tools already in place within the system.

It’s also worth noting a point made in the article by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) who noted one reason cell phones proliferate is the high cost of collect calls that prisoners must make. (The bill also calls for a study into the costs of prison phone services). It’s a point Harold raised in his earlier post, and that others have noted in the past.

I must admit I hadn’t priced a collect call recently, and was surprised to find them being advertised as “cheap” when they cost well over a dollar per minute, alongside a five or six dollar per-call fee. One ten-minute collect call on those plans would go a decent way towards paying my current cell phone bill, and could get me hours of talk time to a UK phone number on Skype.

The prohibitive costs of the above-the-board collect calls just adds to demand for illicit cell phones, meaning that even those prisoners not trying to run credit-card scams or drug deals from their cells have a real incentive to smuggle in handsets. There’s a useful lesson in this that can be applied to other markets—when the authorized market is so tightly constrained, an underground market will flourish. And that market will have many more consequences than the erosion of value for the authorized provider.