Why Prison Contraband is About to Get More Expensive

As seen on Ozy.com:

Over the summer, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) quietly released a partially-redacted internal analysis on contraband interdiction efforts inside federal prisons. During a nine-month investigation, DOJ investigators found serious shortcomings at the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), a division of the DOJ, including outmoded security cameras with “blind spots known to inmates and staff,” and unmanned lobby areas with “poor physical controls,” which can mean visitors don’t get properly screened.

The BOP also “does not adequately search staff” coming into its 109 institutions, the DOJ found. During the nine-month period studied, “No reported random pat searches occurred in 99.5 percent of shifts.” Such practices were unacceptable, scolded the DOJ report. The BOP said it would “develop and propose changes to the staff search policy” by the end of September.

Once the new rules get implemented, federal prisoners can expect to start paying more for contraband says former New York City Corrections Commissioner Martin Horn. After smoking was banned in New York City jails in 2003, Horn says the cost of a single cigarette on the inside shot up from “basically its street value” to $20. The department began using the relative strength or weakness of the market for contraband smokes as a real-time indicator of how effective officers were (or weren’t) at keeping them out.

“The more successful we were, the higher the price,” said Horn. “But it also breeds corruption when it becomes worthwhile for the prisoners to pay a lot of money to staff members to smuggle this stuff in.”

“The main source of contraband introduced into the system is through employees,” says retired NYPD Detective Sergeant Chris Cincotta, a theory confirmed, at least anecdotally, by recent arrests.

While contraband prices go up as prison regulations change, the types of contraband being smuggled in are changing with the times. J.D., an ex-con released from Brooklyn’s Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) three years ago, says he paid as much as $25 a cigarette on the inside, then doubled his money by reselling individual drags. But while regular cigarettes are still big business in prison, e-cigarettes are now making their way inside.

Marijuana remains popular among inmates, but more synthetic drugs like K2 were seized than any other type in a number of New York State prisons last year for one simple reason: they can’t be picked up by traditional drug tests.

Technology in prison advances as it does in the outside world, albeit at a far slower rate. “Prison-restricted” MP3 players can be purchased legally at the MDC’s commissary, for example, for $88.40. Inmates can download 15 “clean” versions of songs per day from a curated catalog, with prices ranging from 80 cents to $1.55 per song — unless, of course, they happen to know the enterprising Russian doing time for computer crimes, whom J.D. says managed to crack the players’ operating system, circumventing restrictions and undercutting prices by as much as 90 percent.

And whereas keeping in touch with the outside world has traditionally been done through closely monitored — and often very expensive — calls from prison pay phones, illegal cellphones have become a coveted item on the underground market inside all correctional institutions.

“We’re constantly finding 5, 6, 10 cell phones in a couple hours on [contraband] sweeps,” said Joe Orlando, public information officer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). “These guys have a lot of time on their hands and they get pretty innovative. We’re just trying to keep up.”

Contraband cell phones can cost up to $1,000 in prison, and come in on drones, within rectums, and recently, inside a dead cat thrown over a fence. In California, prison guards confiscated 955 cell phones between July 2014 and December 2015. In South Carolina, guards confiscated just over 3,000 cell phones in 2014, and a little more than 4,000 last year. In America’s 109 federal facilities, cell phone seizures climbed for several years, then dropped sharply, indicating that inmates may have simply become better at hiding them.

In May, ten U.S. governors asked the FCC to allow the jamming of wireless frequencies in and around state prisons, which the FCC argues is illegal.

Inmates aren’t allowed cash, but they find plenty of substitutes. M.B., a serial burglar on parole from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, bartered with cigarettes, which are still permitted in certain facilities. The federal system banned smoking in 2004, so mylar packets of mackerel, or “macks,” which cost exactly $1 each at the commissary, have acted as currency since then.

Federal prisoners are limited to 24 macks per order. J.D. paid five macks to have his cell cleaned, one mack to have his uniform ironed, or four macks to get all five done. Stamps are also used as currency by federal inmates. However, since they’re freely available, and there’s no limit on how many an inmate can buy, a $10 book of stamps is only worth $7 on the cellblock.

Black markets don’t necessarily threaten a prison’s fragile social order, says economist David Skarbek.

“The violence associated with a Hobbesian jungle ignores the fact that self-interested people often have incentives to develop mechanisms to reduce conflict,” he wrote in a 2010 academic paper.

In one Bolivian prison, Skarbek found rivals competing by offering new services. At Clinton, M.B. says he paid an inmate to do his laundry, but switched providers when a new entrant offered to clean his underwear, something the others didn’t include. And as long as there’s money to be made, jailhouse hustles will continue, concedes Horn.

“There were guys who would stay on Riker’s Island for five, six years,” he said. “They kept having their lawyers postpone their cases because they knew they were going to be found guilty and shipped off to prison, and I determined the reason was because they had existing businesses in the jail, and if you get transferred to Attica, that disrupts things.”