As Georgia prison officials move towards fully digitizing communications with Securus and curtailing access to contraband cellphones, incarcerated people and their loved ones are speaking out. According to advocates, contraband phones are both a vital transparency tool and are increasingly used by Georgia prison officials as a scapegoat for agency brutality and incompetence.
When Tim Ward was commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) last year, he told the state senate that the department believes cellphones are used to commit crimes and plan “hits” on civilians within the prison walls. The crackdown on such devices is allegedly a response to threats to safety and security within the prison system. However, incarcerated people and their advocates say the GDC is attending to fears of media exposure and enjoys financial incentives to remove the devices.
BT, a Georgia prisoner, is the spokesperson for the incarcerated group called Georgia Prisoners Speak. Shadowproof is withholding BT’s name to protect him from retaliation from prison officials. The self-described “auto-advocacy” group aims to expose the prison system and hold prisoncrats accountable through its YouTube platform, website gallery, and blog posts.
“This isn’t about cellphones,” argues BT. “It’s about money and exposing the prison system. There are serious problems in the GDC, starting with all the deaths, suicide, murder, lack of medical care.”
“People are starving and the lack of vital nutrition has become a serious concern, especially as most of the ‘food’ is inedible. There are no programs for rehabilitation and job skills, despite what they claim in their fiscal reports, and so for many prisoners there is nothing to do.”
“GDC doesn’t want taxpayers or lawmakers to know just how terribly they are failing in their mandate,” BT said.
There have been reports of prisoners forced to live in shower stalls or outside. Georgia prison conditions are so abysmal that it has prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to announce the launch of a second investigation into GDC’s deadly prison conditions.
In recent years, cellphones have become a major talking point for prisoncrats who are questioned about conditions. In order to legitimize their assertions that contraband phones are mainly used for nefarious ends, the GDC has invested in security technology such as Mobile Access Management systems that allow them to control devices on their property, and sensors to detect drones and the presence of electronic devices. The agency has also made use of full body scanners, electronic detection-trained dogs, and prolific searches.
In a letter dated January 26, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr and 21 other state attorneys general called on congressional leaders to pass legislation that would allow states to use cellphone-jamming technology in correctional facilities. Currently, federal law prohibits the use of such technology.
Securus—a telecommunications company that provides phone and video services to prison systems across the country—has a contract with the Georgia Department of Corrections, and the company stands to benefit if the use of contraband cellphones is reduced. This is because when prisoners use Securus’ tablets and pay phones, the company charges them and their families high rates.
Zombr3x, 28, is incarcerated within a Middle Georgia men’s prison. Shadowproof is withholding his identity to protect him from retaliation.
“The reason they want to take away phones is because the more we are able to establish lines of communication outside of ‘official’ channels, the less money companies such as Securus and JPay make off of us,” Zombr3x explained. “Less money for the prison industrial complex means less money for kickbacks to wardens and commissioners.”
The GDC entered into a revenue-sharing agreement with Securus and also reportedly receives over $8 million dollars per year in kickbacks from the company for prisoner phone calls. Additionally, there may be unrecorded kickbacks given to select GDC employees.
The crackdown is also about ensuring access to surveillance, narrative control, and, of course, punishment. Contraband phones and jailbroken tablets have been among the most prominent means that prisoners, their loved ones, and prison reform activists have to compel transparency and demand accountability.
Prisoners’ use of cellphones to document and share evidence of abusive guards, inadequate medical care, and unsanitary living conditions has put pressure on the GDC to improve conditions. It is likely that the crackdown on these devices is an attempt to prevent prisoners from continuing to expose these issues.
Campaigns for free prison phone calls have become more common, and pretty much everyone except for prison officials and prison profiteers agrees this is a good and fair demand. But those campaigns alone arguably do not obviate the other roles contraband phones play in terms of avoiding surveillance and reporting conditions of confinement.
Several Facebook groups, such as They Have No Voice and The Human and Civil Rights Coalition of Georgia, actively communicate with prisoners via social media in order to get the hard details on what’s happening inside.
“GDC wants the absolute isolation and deprivation of the incarcerated,” said Susan Burns of They Have No Voice. “GDC is trying to prevent exposure as a failed agency providing cover to a remarkably inept and corrupt staff. GDC cannot afford to be transparent with stakeholders when violence, cruelty, callous treatment of the sick, injured, and elderly, starvation rations, and disrespect are not considered abhorrent behavior by its workforce.”
Nonprofits such as The Southern Center for Human Rights and Ignite Justice have also corresponded with prisoners through their phones and tablets in order to collect evidence that has resulted in rare steps towards accountability.
The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to strained communications access as well, including the suspension of in-person visits in most prisons and jails. Since then, most prison systems have reopened “limited visitation,” but a handful still have not returned to their pre-pandemic arrangements, according to the latest available data by the Marshall Project.
Adding new communications obstacles to this situation further isolates incarcerated individuals and weakens their connection to their friends and family, and other support systems. This is a recipe for disaster as around 600,000 people leave prisons in the US and a larger number cycle in and out of jails. Approximately 2.7 million children in the US have a parent who is incarcerated. By removing cellphones, the process of rehabilitation and reentry can be hindered, increasing the risk of recidivism. Maintaining these bonds is critical to the health and safety of communities.
Prisoners’ access to phones and other unrestricted internet devices needs to be encouraged and protected, possibly even legislated, because of the roles they play in the lives of incarcerated people.
Ultimately, this is about the GDC’s financial interests and the agency’s efforts to conceal the inhumane realities of the prison system. Prisoners, their loved ones, and the communities to which prisoners must return suffer most from these pernicious prison cellphone policies.