The role that cellular communications have played over the last 30-plus years in shaping the U.S. economy and growing the nation’s productivity and wealth can hardly be overstated. Cellular technology has made it possible for people to communicate and work in ways that had never before even been imagined. But they have also presented a unique set of problems. This has been especially true in the U.S. prison industry.
The first cellphones started coming on the scene, en masse, in the mid-1980s. These first cellphones were almost exclusively installed in cars because their components were extremely bulky. This was partially due to the larger size of first-generation electronics. But it was also due to the fact that early cellphones were as much as 1,000 times more powerful than today’s phones. This was simply due to the fact that there were far fewer towers. Amazingly, some of the first analogue car phones had reception quality and range that was not too much worse than that of the average cellphone in 2010.
However, by the mid-90s, the proliferation of cellular networks and towers and the rapid miniaturization of the now all-digital phones meant that the average size of a cellphone had shrunk considerably. The 90s saw the advent of the famous flip phones, the first cellphones that could easily fit in a user’s pocket. By 1999, highly effective cellular telephones were being produced that were small enough to be concealed almost anywhere.
Good news for business, bad news for prisons
In 1995, cellphones were still a convincing status symbol, used by the highly successful and elite public officials like detectives. But by 2005, they were prolific, with almost all American families having at least one cellphone. This proliferation was great for the U.S. economy as a whole. But it would quickly prove disastrous for U.S. prisons.
Cellphone soon flooded the country’s jails and prisons, fetching prices of up to $300 per phone. This influx of illegal cellphones, which could now be used effectively in almost any U.S. prison due to improved cellular networks, undermined the security of prisons and allowed prisoners privileges to which they were not entitled. But the real problem these phones posed was giving dangerous gang leaders the ability to communicate orders easily and effectively, without limitation, to soldiers on the outside.
Cellphones allowed these gangs to conduct drug deals, intimidate or assassinate witnesses and even order hits on guards and other law enforcement personnel. These phones therefore posed an existential threat to the safety of institutions and the public. Something needed to be done.
Then, in 2016, Securus Technologies unveiled its Wireless Containment System, a technology capable of completely blocking all illegal cellular calls placed from within a prison. Today, the WCS is rapidly spreading, finally marking an end to the epidemic of illegal cell phones.