Inmates have taken many prison phone use issues to court.

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Using the Prison Telephone: Prisoners' Rights

You have the right to remain silent. But do you have the right to remain connected via telephone? Movies and TV shows commonly depict the prisoner demanding his right to one phone call. But in actuality, phone use in prisons varies widely. Prisoners must be allowed reasonable access to an attorney, but otherwise, phone rules are largely up to the discretion of the individual prisons or states.

When prisons began allowing inmates to use the phone, they began imposing restrictions on that use. In the U.S., states can institute laws to protect a prisoner's rights to phone use. But according to the federal courts, prisoners can't hide behind the Constitution to use the phone. The First Amendment's right to free speech clause does not give prisoners unrestricted access to a phone, even if it does allow minimal access. Often, prisons consider phone calls perks or privileges, rather than a guaranteed right (excluding certain exceptions, such as contacting an attorney).

Because it's a perk, prisoners can lose phone privileges as punishment for bad behavior. Feeling wronged, many of these prisoners have attempted to sue the prison for legal redress, but often to no avail. Federal courts have commonly cited the fact that, even when prisons deny phone privileges, the inmates are often still free to receive visits from people or send and receive letters, so their ability to communicate is not unreasonably restricted. Also, because of the many illegal activities that can be arranged over the phone, including drug deals, murder orders and prison breaks, the courts have often upheld the right of prisons to restrict phone use as a reasonable security measure.

Despite the disparities among prison telephone regulations, most prisons share some common ground rules for their inmates. For instance, prisons maintain that inmates must make only collect calls. Also, prisons may request the inmate submit a list of 10 people he or she can call. In addition, prisons also will often stipulate that inmates cannot receive incoming calls unless there is an emergency.

Prisons' phone regulations are not alike. Take a look at a few extremes:

  • On the stricter side, Texas state prisons lay out in their offenders' handbook that the inmate is not permitted the perk of phone use unless he or she is engaged in full-time work (such as productive maintenance labor), school or treatment. In addition, phone calls are restricted to five minutes and requests to make a phone call must be made in writing. The request also must include the purpose of the call and the name and relation of the person to be contacted [source: TDCJ].
  • Salt Lake County, Utah regulations, on the other hand, allow 15 minute conversations and don't stipulate a restriction on how often prisoners can make these calls [source: Salt Lake County].
  • Other jails are far more liberal about phone use and will allow prisoners freedom to use the common pay phone as much as they like, as long as they don't hog it from others [source: Whitman County Jail].
  • Ohio jail administrators leave rules up to the individual prisons, but stipulate that phones shouldn't be kept in noisy areas, so that phone users can hear the person on the other end¬†[source: Beach].

For federal prisons, the rules are a bit more unified. Before the 1980s, prisoners in federal facilities were commonly only allowed one personal phone call every three months [source: Fine]. Since then, however, the rules have been loosened, and inmates have the opportunity to make calls much more frequently. This, however, has meant that it has become easier for these inmates to conduct illegal activities over the phone, as monitoring all of these conversations is virtually impossible for the meager-sized staffs assigned to the duty.

On the next page, we'll talk about the practice and legality of tapping prison telephone calls.