Press Releases

Feinstein: Increase in Inmate Cell Phone Use Unacceptable

‘Cell phone use by prisoners threatens institutional safety and provides opportunities for further criminal activity’

Washington–Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) urged the Federal Bureau of Prisons to increase efforts to detect and prevent the illegal use of cell phones by federal inmates.

Senator Feinstein is the author of The Cell Phone Contraband Act of 2010, legislation that criminalized cell phone possession in federal prisons and mandated a study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on contraband cell phones in prisons.

The recently released GAO study found the number of contraband cell phones seized in federal prisons and minimum-security facilities more than doubled from 1,774 in 2008 to 3,684 in 2010. 

In a letter to Thomas Kane, the acting director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Feinstein wrote, “The growth in inmates’ contraband cell phone use is unacceptable.  As noted by the GAO, inmate cell phone use threatens institutional safety and provides opportunities for further criminal activity, such as selling drugs, harassing individuals, and even ordering murders.”

Following is the text of the letter to Acting Director Kane:

September 7, 2011

Thomas R. Kane
Acting Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons
320 First Street, NW
Washington, DC  20534

Dear Acting Director Kane:

I write to express my concern with the continuing increase of contraband cell phones in federal prisons as documented by a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. 

As you know, the Cell Phone Contraband Act, which I authored, went into effect on August 10, 2010.  The Act classifies cell phones and other wireless devices as contraband material in federal prisons.  Any federal inmate found in possession of a cell phone is subject to a penalty of up to one year, a fine of up to $5,000, or both.  The same penalty applies to anyone attempting to provide a federal inmate with a cell phone. 

The Act also mandated that the GAO study the problem of cell phones in prisons. According to the GAO report, “Improved Evaluations and Increased Coordination Could Improve Cell Phone Detection,” which was issued on September 6, 2011, the number of contraband cell phones in prisons is rising.  As evidence of the problem, the GAO notes that cell phone confiscations in federal prisons have increased from 1,774 in 2008 to 3,684 in 2010.  There have been similar increases in many states, including my home state of California, which has seen cell phone confiscations rise from 900 in 2007 to 10,700 in 2010.

The growth in inmates’ contraband cell phone use is unacceptable.  As noted by the GAO, inmate cell phone use threatens institutional safety and provides opportunities for further criminal activity, such as selling drugs, harassing individuals, and even ordering murders. 

It is my understanding that the Department of Justice has begun to enforce the Cell Phone Contraband Act and is in the process of prosecuting a number of federal inmates.  Hopefully, these prosecutions will serve as a deterrent.  However, I would also appreciate your views on what, if any, additional legislation may be needed to address this issue.  I also urge you to implement the GAO’s recommendations, including better testing and evaluation of technologies that can detect and defeat cell phone use.

Thank you for your attention to this important issue.

Sincerely,

Dianne Feinstein

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