HOUSTON — They're annoying, those little cellphones, on trains, in restaurants, in packed waiting rooms.
But what was once a simple annoyance is now a growing problem in prisons and jails across America. Cellphones are becoming the newest form of coveted contraband, allowing inmates to communicate freely with the outside world and, at times, conduct illicit activity from behind bars. While the problem is not yet widespread, it's growing larger, keeping pace with a high-tech, wireless world.
In Texas, for instance, a correctional officer was recently charged with bribery and drug possession after trying to smuggle a cellphone and heroin into a prison south of Houston.
If found guilty, she will be sentenced under a new law passed in last year's legislative session that made it a felony to provide an inmate with a cellphone. More and more states are passing such laws as trouble crops up.
"Cellular telephones are emerging as a major contraband item in prisons and jails across the country," says Jess Maghan, director of the Forum for Comparative Correction. "And the incarcerated population is getting younger and angrier and less afraid of being punished - and very savvy about these devices."
The phones' prevalence is spurring a crackdown:
• In Tennessee, 15 cellphones were discovered at a correctional center in six weeks. The director called it "a serious breach of security."
• In Colorado, a federal inmate and a correctional officer were charged with bilking a New York firm out of thousands of dollars using a cellphone.
• And in Pennsylvania, for instance, a convicted drug dealer was charged with using a smuggled cellphone to operate his network from prison.
The problem may be even more significant internationally. In Brazil, for instance, a 2001 prison riot - the largest in that country's history - was orchestrated through a network of cellphones and spread to 28 other prisons. Ten thousand inmates took guards hostage and held visitors inside.
Cellphones are making their way into jails and prison through all kinds of methods: They're stuffed inside mayonnaise jars, hidden in compost piles, shoved into the soles of shoes, slipped inside hollowed-out blocks of cheese. But the most alarming way to obtain a cellphone is to simply to pay a corrupt correctional officer to provide one.
"The reason these guards are so susceptible to this type of misconduct is they are young, underpaid, not trained very well, and given too much unchecked power," says Yolanda Torres, an inmates-rights attorney and litigation director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas. "To be a prison guard in Texas, you aren't required to have an education [or] work experience. You can go straight from making French fries at McDonalds to having control over a prison."
Indeed, the starting salary for a correctional officer in Texas is just under $18,000 a year and the age requirement is 18 years old. Like many other states, Texas is facing a worker shortage. But prison officials here say the cellphone problem is an anomaly, confined to one facility out of 105 in the state.
"By and large, this is not as rampant as you would think it is," says Mike Viesca, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "It is no more of a problem than any other contraband item people are trying to sneak in right now."
Contributing to the problem here is the inaccessibility of telephones in general. Texas is one of the few states that does not provide phone banks to prisoners. Telephone calls are considered a privilege to those who earn them, says Mr. Viesca.
"In terms of large American correctional systems, Texas is very unusual when it comes to telephone privileges," says Steve Martin, a lawyer and national correctional consultant in Austin. "That would suggest a higher premium on cellphones. If I was a convict here, I would love to have one."
Once they've obtained their cellphones, inmates hide them in body cavities, toilets, mattresses, and laundry. The problem has spurred officials to install high-tech jamming devices, more sophisticated X-ray detectors, and better monitoring systems.
"As these things become smaller and more technologically advanced, it is more difficult to catch, and that's a problem," says Stephen Ingley, executive director of the American Jail Association.
The larger issue of communication in and out of America's prisons has gotten a lot of attention in the past two decades. Correctional officials have spent more time sifting through mail, and advances in cellphone technology - the ability to record conversations, block three-way calls, and trace numbers on land lines, for instance - have made cellphones more attractive to inmates.
In addition, many jails and prisons now permit only collect calls, and make significant revenue off the high charges. Alvin Bronstein, with Penal Reform International, says he has a client in Hawaii whose family member was transferred to a prison in Oklahoma because of overcrowding. At $8 a minute, the client's telephone bill is between $300 to $350 a month.
When he spoke to a group of inmates' families this week on the the high cost of calls from prison, many in the audience knew of the issue of smuggled cellphones - and he suspects many of them had smuggled phones in themselves.
Still, experts are skeptical that cellphones are used primarily to keep in touch with loved ones.
"It would be nice to think prisoners who are smuggling in cellphones simply want to talk to their families," says Ms. Torres, "but I doubt they are risking severe sanctions and criminal consequences to do that."