How Do Prisoners Obtain Cell Phones?

nmates in the American prison system do not have permission to own or use cell phones, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping them from making calls and using social media. Many people wonder how prisoners are able to obtain smartphones in prison, when inmates are posting messages and even photos from inside their cells.

Prisoners often have limited access to email and the internet. Recently, the Trust Fund Limited Inmate Computer System (TRULINCS) became a standard service in American prisons, offering an easier means of communication between prisoners and their contacts on the outside. However, loopholes in the TRULINCS system allow some prisoners access to social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Despite increasing availability of communication amenities and computer access, many inmates are somehow obtaining smartphones for personal use and accessing social media outside of approved channels.


Cell phones are contraband in prison, so if a guard discovers one in a prisoner’s cell or on a prisoner’s person, the guard will likely confiscate it. Prisoners get these phones into their cells by smuggling. Sometimes it’s as simple as a friend or family member throwing a phone over the prison yard fence. Other smuggling operations are more complex, with a few cases involving guards participating in the smuggling for kickbacks on the side.

Smuggling is a major problem in American prisons, with inmates securing items like cell phones, drugs, alcohol, and even weapons. While most prison systems are careful to prevent smuggling of dangerous items, cell phones are easier to smuggle, and prisons can’t shut down cellular service on their premises due to Federal Communications Commission regulations.

Unfortunately, the prison phone system afforded to inmates encourages the smuggling of cell phones into prisons. Most phone programs charge prisoners expensive fees for phone time, sometimes with weekly or monthly limits. If an inmate has family on the outside, or an emergency occurs, he or she may use up such an allotment in a single day. Finding time to make calls is another problem for many inmates. In the face of these obstacles, using a smuggled cell phone is an easier, if riskier, option.


Prison time is a very isolating experience, and many inmates quickly feel cut off from reality after starting a prison sentence. Maintaining contact with loved ones, friends, and the rest of the outside world is important for many inmates, and this further encourages smuggling practices and the circulation of contraband in American prisons.

Some prisoners work around the system without resorting to contraband use by having friends or family maintain their social media presences, respond to messages, or relay comments from photos and other posts. While these prisoners may function well socially in this regard, this is still a very limited means of communication with the outside world. Smuggling will remain a problem for many prisons because of the draw of social media and the overwhelming pressure in society to stay in touch with the world. While individual prisons may enact policies to curb the trend of contraband cell phones appearing in their cells, the situation is likely to continue until prisoners have a more robust means of staying in touch with their contacts on the outside.