We Called a California Inmate to Talk About Illegal Smartphones in Prisons

He broke down how much the devices cost, their availability, how they get in, what they're being used for, and the consequences of getting caught with one.

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Feb 4 2015, 7:09pm

Photo via Flickr user Jennifer Carole

Contraband smartphones are readily available inside America's vast prison system. Price and availability vary widely, but they've been making their way inside the belly of the beast in major numbers for a while now. Recently, reports have emerged about prisoners in the US (and abroad) making rap videos, posting on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, and even running their criminal enterprises by phone from their cells.

For some context on the smartphone scene in America's prison system, we called a lifer in California for an interview—which he participated in via contraband smartphone, of course. He broke down how much the devices cost in the state system, their availability, how they are getting in, what they are being used for, and the consequences for those prisoners who get caught with one.

"It all depends on what prison you in, as far as how much you will pay," says Big Smoke, a 34-year-old Crip member doing life in the California Department of Corrections. "The first prison that I bought me a cell phone from, it cost me $1,000 for a Verizon flip phone." That might seem outrageous for an outdated piece of plastic, but when you're doing life in a netherworld of corruption and violence, shelling out a grand for a beacon to the outside world isn't beyond reason.

"It depends on what environment you're in, because the prices will fluctuate," Big Smoke goes on. "Right now in that prison I was in, Salinas Valley, the flip phones is going for $2,500 and the smartphones for $3,500 because it is so scarce."

So the laws of supply and demand apply inside the prison-industrial complex, too. But how do the smartphones get into prisons in the first place?

"The staff is bringing them in because it's a lucrative market, big time," Big Smoke says. "As fast as they come, the inmates is buying them off the staff. We just had a female guard who got busted with ten cell phones and a whole bunch of weed in her purse, bringing it in. So it's a black market and it's always gonna be some cop or other staff that's tempted to bring it in."

Prisoners have too much idle time and anything that can divert them—be it drugs or a cell phone—is going to be highly coveted. But cell phones aren't always that hard to come by.

"In some prisons, it's so plentiful that the prices drop, like this smartphone I'm on, I paid $350 for it. It's a 4G Galaxy," Big Smoke says. "That's unheard of because in other prisons, this same phone goes for ten times the amount. But in LA County prisons, the gangs got a monopolization. We right here, we in our backyard. We flood this muthafucka, everybody flooding it. When you go up north in California, it's a little different, but right here in LA County everything is cheap, everything is in bulk."

And while prisoners may not have massive social media followings, they're on the same sites as the rest of us.

"Everybody on Facebook," Big Smoke says. "All my homies that got phones, all of us are friends on Facebook. Niggas be making rap videos, they be filming riots and filming shit that's going on and putting them on YouTube." Of course, they are all on Facebook under fake names, because if the prison officials find out, they will shut the perpetrator down. Still, despite some states—like California— increasing penalties for smartphone use, the consequences effectively remain so minor that most prisoners like Big Smoke don't sweat it.

"I got caught with like seven cell phones. It's nothing major," he told us. "I don't have no fear of getting caught with a cell phone. It's real low here. We ain't tripping no way. I'm a lifer, so until my appeal gets reversed, I'm not tripping, because what can they do to me, give me another year?" As long as they can come up with the money to buy one, prisoners looking ahead to long bids see no reason to pass up the pleasures of modern technology.

"They don't put us in the hole or nothing here; they just slap us on the wrist," Big Smoke says. "The lowest division here is like an F and a cell phone is a division D. The highest division is an A. If you get that, it's bad. An A is like stabbing someone with a knife."

With all the gang and racial violence in California's prison system, correctional officials have more important things to worry about than smartphone proliferation.

"The gangs over here is always prevalent," Big Smoke says. "They had three race riots since I been here. The Bloods and Crips and Mexicans. They be tripping on the gang activity more than anything."

That means that not much time is spent keeping tabs on what has become a pretty big underground economy in prisons.

"The cell phones is rampant up and down the coast of California," Big Smoke says. "Some inmates is even smuggling them in now because it's so profitable. They smuggling in memory cards, chargers, cords, anything that has to do with a cell phone. All that stuff goes for $50 a pop. Every part that has to do with a cell phone is profitable. The black market is big."

Enforcement may be relatively lax, but the occasional search is still a cause for concern.

"They don't trip that hard, they look for them, but they be looking for knives and shit we be using when we get ready to go to war with each other," Big Smoke says. "There are so many damn gangsters on the line. We have so many racial riots, it's crazy. Drama among the blacks and Mexicans and the Bloods verse the Crips. The white boys against whoever and them fuckers are violent as fuck. They don't play."

When the guards do conduct searches, inmates are ready and warn each other—with smartphones, among other things.

"If the police is searching in one block we gonna know in the next block and vice versa because we communicate," Big Smoke says. "If they heading our way we gonna know, we text each other. We give the guys in the other buildings a heads up if they hit us first. 'Yo, put your shit up. It's a security breach.' We got a communication system. We can find out what we're on lockdown for."

This isn't just about making life easy on the inside, though. Prisoners can also run a network of illegal activity from their cells.

"We monopolize, do deals on the streets," Big Smoke says. "I got a gang of homeboys, I fuck with a lot of Crips all over the country. My shit blow up all day. You don't even know. The phones give us an edge. This muthafucka right now help me to monopolize a lot of shit from right here."

Follow Seth Ferranti on Twitter.

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