Yes, Prisoners Carry iPhones in Their Arses

By Brent Rose on at

If you think the mobile phone explosion of recent years has somehow been kept at bay by prison walls, you would be greatly mistaken. Technology, like water, permeates every crack. Today on Lockdown, we're talking phones in jail.

In prison, a mobile phone is an extremely coveted item—one that easily fetches hundreds on the black market. Not surprisingly, prisoners go to great lengths to get them. Lengths that might make a normal person throw up. Warning: This is rough stuff.

When we asked Sergeant Don McGraw how phones make their way into San Quentin, he turned to Sam Robinson, our CDC liaison and asked, "How deep do you want me to go with this?" Sam replied, "As deep as you want to go." We knew we were in for something special.

Of all the shocking things we saw that day, perhaps the most shocking was a Samsung Captivate. It has a 4-inch screen. It's 4.78 inches long, 2 and a half inches wide, and almost half an inch thick. And it was up somebody's arse. Yes, an iPhone up the arse is bad, as is the BlackBerry Storm you see there, but holy God the Captivate made my eyes cross just thinking about it.

Smart phones are especially coveted in prison, not surprisingly. Aside from being able to more easily email, search the web and communicate, this is arguably the main way prisoners are getting their porn now. Porn, as you might imagine, is a very hot commodity in the big house.

Most of the phones that are discovered are of the pre-paid variety, which makes them extremely hard to trace. Most of the time, when phones are found they are locked and have had their SIM cards removed. In cases where they recover a phone with a SIM card they attempt to unlock it and scour it for data: phone numbers they called, text messages, emails, and any photos they may have taken.

Sergeant McGraw said that while other prisons have a much bigger problem with phones being brought in (especially prisons in more rural areas), he's noticed a huge jump at San Quentin just within the last year. He estimates that roughly 10-percent of the population in San Quentin have cell phones, which is a stark contradiction to the 1-percent estimate inmate Sam Johnson gave us just an hour earlier.

There are many different ways that phones come in. Officer Patao mentioned the inmate crews that work for Caltrans (the California Department of Transportation). The correctional officers have made it much more difficult for this to work by making sure that inmates have no idea where they'll be working on any given day. But if they are on a larger, week-long assignment in one area, it still happens. He also talked about drop points within the San Quentin grounds.

So, now you know all about illegal phones in prisons. But what about the phones they are legally allowed to use? As a bonus video, here's inmate Sam Johnson giving us a quick once-over on how those work, too. They look exactly like I remember phone booths from the '80s, minus the coin slot. I can't remember when I last saw that PacBell logo. Seeing them again in a prison was like stepping out of a time machine. A time machine that dropped you in jail.

Lockdown is all about the technology inside prisons, from weapons to hacks, contraband to cooking, and everything in between. We're bringing it to you directly from San Quentin State Prison in California. You can read the introduction to the series here, and see all of the other posts here. Tomorrow we'll be exploring prison economy and how purchases are made, both legal and illegal.

Lockdown is our bigger US brother’s series on tech in one of the US’ most notorious prisons. True, it may not bear too much relevance to our law-abiding Gizmodo UK readers, but we deem it to be a fascinating account on a prison we’ve all heard of (even if it’s due to the Johnny Cash album and song of the same name.) Read the series here.