ATLANTA — A counterfeiter at a Georgia state prison ticks off the remaining days of his three-year sentence on his Facebook page. He has 91 digital “friends.” Like many of his fellow inmates, he plays the online games FarmVille and Street Wars.
He does it all on a Samsung smartphone, which he says he bought from a guard. And he used the same phone to help organize a short strike among inmates at several Georgia prisons last month.
Technology is changing life inside prisons across the country at the same rapid-fire pace it is changing life outside. A smartphone hidden under a mattress is the modern-day file inside a cake.
“This kind of thing was bound to happen,” said Martin F. Horn, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction who teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “The physical boundaries that we thought protected us no longer work.”
Although prison officials have long battled illegal cellphones, smartphones have changed the game. With Internet access, a prisoner can call up phone directories, maps and photographs for criminal purposes, corrections officials and prison security experts say. Gang violence and drug trafficking, they say, are increasingly being orchestrated online, allowing inmates to keep up criminal behavior even as they serve time.
“The smartphone is the most lethal weapon you can get inside a prison,” said Terry L. Bittner, director of security products with the ITT Corporation, one of a handful of companies that create cellphone-detection systems for prisons. “The smartphone is the equivalent of the old Swiss Army knife. You can do a lot of other things with it.”
The Georgia prison strike, for instance, was about things prisoners often complain about: They are not paid for their labor. Visitation rules are too strict. Meals are bad.
But the technology they used to voice their concerns was new.