GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Cell phones have become the most popular contraband among inmates at the Harrison County jail. And it's a growing concern at correctional facilities across the country.
Not long ago, a pack of cigarettes was the preferred high-priced contraband among inmates. These days it's cell phones, which can fetch up to $500.00 behind bars.
There's a good chance that, at this moment, an inmate at the Harrison County jail is hiding or even using a smuggled cell phone.
"Because they can hide them anywhere now. And what they're doing with them now is hiding them in body cavities. Visitors are hiding them in body cavities to be able to transfer them on. And it's a serious issue," said Sheriff Melvin Brisolara.
Jail warden and corrections expert Dr. Don Cabana said cell phones in the hands of inmates are more than a nuisance.
"Cell phones become a very, very expensive kind of currency. Because there's so much you can do with it in terms of criminal enterprise. There's so much you can do with it to circumvent institutional procedure," said Dr. Don Cabana.
"They're used to help bring in more contraband. They're used to help them escape. They're also used to intimidate witnesses in cases," Sheriff Brisolara said.
Random cell searches and inmate checks are constantly finding phones smuggled in by the prisoners or their visitors.
"It goes in a sporadic fashion, but I would say probably in the past year we've probably confiscated fifty or more," said Dr. Cabana.
You may recall an incident last year when pictures of Harrison County inmates, taken with a cell phone, showed up on MySpace.
"It's something that we try to keep tabs on. It's a significant problem for corrections and certainly Mississippi is no exception," the warden said.
Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker is co-sponsoring legislation that offers a high tech solution to the problem of inmates with cell phones.
The Safe Communications Act of 2009 would allow correctional facilities to use wireless jamming devices to prevent cell phone calls from behind bars.
"It's very important that we get that done. Because it would definitely kill the value of a cell phone in a correctional facility," said the sheriff.
Inmates at the jail are allowed to make phone calls. But they are supposed to use the hard line phones that are in the day rooms.
Calls on those phones can be closely monitored, unlike inmates who have smuggled cell phones in their cells.