Contraband cellphones – the ‘porous prison’

On opposite sides of the world, in very different penal systems, penal authorities are trying to gain control of the communication technology used by inmates both to organise themselves within the prison, and to make contact with those outside. In Jakarta, Indonesia, an impromptu raid unearthed and confiscated illegal devices such as cell phones, chargers, and an iPad, and in California USA, the private company that owns the pay phones in the state’s prisons is installing technology to prevent inmates from using smuggled cell phones to make their calls.

Although the motivation in the US is partially to protect the profits of the service provider, aided by new legislation which makes smuggling a cell phone into a prison a misdemeanour punishable by a fine of up to US$5,000, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Matthew Cate said that the “groundbreaking and momentous technology” to be installed “will enable [the prison system] to crack down on the potentially dangerous communications by inmates.”

Under the new plan, each prison will have a cellphone tower that can be controlled by prison officials.  Cell phones supplied by the approved provider will be able to send and receive signals, but contraband phones will be useless.

The introduction of this technology in California’s jails draws attention to the porosity of the prison wall, engaging with Goffmann’s interpretation of the prison as a ‘total institution’, and to critiques which draw attention to its porosity and permeability. The blurred nature of the prison boundary has been observed by Baer and Ravneberg (2008), who in their description of Norwegian and English prisons highlight the indistinction that they perceived between outside and inside, and by Moran (in press) in relation to prison visiting spaces in the Russian Federation.

The prison wall is permeable not only in that it permits the interpenetration of material things (people, supplies) but also intangible things (ideas, the internet, emotional attachments), and this move in California could be interpreted as a means of wresting back some control over the level of porosity or permeability of the prison wall to communication technology.