Through the Looking Glass

Cell phones in prison, other than those belonging to C.O.s, are contraband, meaning they are illegal to have. The BOP doesn’t want prisoners having them for fairly obvious reasons.

First, all phone calls need to be monitored, so that prisoners won’t use them to conduct illegal activities (such as arranging for other contraband to be smuggled in) or, if they are stupid enogh to do so, will likely be caught.

Second, for a phone call to be made, the number must be on the inmates approved list.

Third, cells phones would defeat the ability of the BOP to charge $0.20/min ($3.00 for a 15 minute call, the max. length). I don’t know the economics of the matter, and certainly there’s a significant cost to conduct monitoring, but it’s likely this is a significant revenue stream for the BOP. Supposedly the profit is accrued to the prisoner’s benfit, as are commissary profits, and from that are purchased the TVs, microwaves, recreation equipment, etc. Nobody believes that is what the entirety of it goes to, and rumors abound that most of it goes to pay for many C.O. (correction officer)-centric goodies.

Fourth, it keeps inmates from the internet, for the hundreds of reasons that this is necessarily prohibited.

Inmates, for all the reasons above, want them. Or, at least many do. Therefore, since ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’, cell phones are fairly rampant.

And thus, there is the continual ‘cat & mouse game’ of inmates bringing them in, and C.O.s searching for them. Both sides continually “up” their game to meet the tactical advancements of the other. When the C.O.s find them and can pin them on an individual, the game can be costly to the guilty (or otherwise unfortunate) individual, beginning with a 30+ day visit to the “hole” or “shoe” (actually, the SHU- special housing unit).

From there, other penalties/punishments can be added.

What happens though, when contraband phones or phone chargers are found, but not in a place or manner for the guilty party to be identified? What happens, for example, when a phone is found hidden in the chapel, or a library shelf, or under some gravel outside a unit, or inside the ice machine in a unit” Who is to get the punishment? Who do you make hurt for the sake of deterrence (or Deterrence, the Holy Grail of the DOJ)?

You could choose a scapegoat arbitrarily, but that’s just too unjust, even for the DOJ (tongue somewhat in cheek). You’re left then with punishing no one, or everyone.

To punish no one, would be for the overlords to lose face. This is perceived, or so it seems, to be unacceptable. Fear of the overlords and what they might do to you, is an absolute necessity for law and order to exist in a prison.

This leaves only the option of punishing everyone, for the infraction of just one. This is the option of mass punishment.

Mass punishment in most societies is prohibited because it’s a great injustice. It’s unjust because it punishes the 99% non-guilty equally to the 1% guilty.

There are situations where the threat of mass punishment fits. One is where honor exists, such as a service academy like West Point or the Air Force Academy. The culprits of misdeeds or those with knowledge of it are honor-bound to confess or self-report. Even though there may be honor among thieves, that’s expecting a little too much from a prison population, even if just a “camp”.

The other situation is a group in which the authorities allow some use of force by the population for purposes of self-policing. An example is military basic training where Drill Instructors might take a “coffe break”, sufficiently long to allow the unit to “sort things out”. When they return, the culprit either self-confesses or is identifiable by having the stuffing beat out of him. At least that’s how things used to be done.

Is that how the BOP expects mass punishment to work? Surely not in the lower security prisons, where there’s zero-tolerance for any sort of violence between prisoners. (Although, I’m told, in medium to high security prisons a certain amount is tolerated due to a basic inability to prevent it all.) There is, in fact, in the BOP regulations, a prohibition against mass punishment, for this very reason. (I myself have not seen it, nor would I know where to look for it, but know someone credible who claims to have seen it.)

But I’m here to tell you, mass punishments exist. We recently saw the commissary shut down for a week due to a cell phone being found in the library. Just about every month, some unit loses the use of their TVs or microwaves for a week, due to a cell phone found, of unknown ownership.

A guy in our unit sent a complaint to the Warden, citing violation of the reg. against mass punishment. He received his reply verbally from the Captain, who informed him that we weren’t being “mass punished”, because “we have no right to commissary, or TVs, or microwaves”. These things are “privileges” and therefore being deprived of them doesn’t constitute punishment.

As Humpty Dumpty said, “Words mean what I want them to mean, neither more nor less”.

[Yeah, yeah, yeah- this should be filed under First World Prison Problems. But dammit- I wanted to see the final round of the PGA Championship, and COLLEGE FOOTBALL is right around the corner.]

Oh, the humanity!