Prisons, at the very minimum are intended as quarantine; keeping cities and towns safer by removing criminals from their midst. But, in the opinion of one prisoner in Brazil, he’s more at liberty behind bars than out on the streets.

Marcos Willians Herbas Camacho told one reporter, “It is you who are afraid of dying, not me. As a matter of fact, here in jail you cannot come in and kill me . . . but I can order to kill you out there.”

Camacho is one of many prisoners relying on smuggled cell phones to conduct his business from inside the jailhouse walls. At the Baltimore City Detention Center, an inmate named Tavon White was wiretapped on his contraband phone expressing the same sentiments as his Brazilian counterpart, “I got elevated to the seat where as though nobody in the jail could outrank me. . . . Like, I am the law.”

Dethroning White takes more than just increased surveillance or cell phone jamming technology. The prevalence of cell phones has exposed a deeper problem: The current prison system preserves and even nurtures violence and criminal affiliations. Our approach to convicts has been too much focused on containment, which, except in the case of life sentences, must eventually come to an end.

Until cellphones made it trivial for a well-connected prisoner to reach the outside world, jailhouse policy has usually been more focused on information flowing the opposite direction. Texas is one among many states to have lengthy lists of books banned from prison libraries—Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, and Jenna Bush are among the many authors whose works have been proscribed.

Jailhouse librarians and review boards assumed that, by carefully culling reading material, they could control their prisoners’ thoughts and actions. By keeping inmates on ice and away from anything too provocative, supposedly they would eventually be better prepared for reentry into society. The erroneous assumption is that they have ever been removed.

Our throwaway culture makes it easy to imagine that the problem of prisoners is solved when they are removed from our lives and attention. While citizens on the outside assume that prisoners have been effectively isolated, in large part, because the inmates have become invisible, connections still flourish.

But there’s a perverse filter on the friendships available. Incarceration limits their society to smugglers and other lawbreakers. Even if we have limited our own exposure and awareness, the people we lock up remain, as Aristotle said, “the social animal” and, in the absence of community and traditions, they make their own.

When an investigation tapped several of the secret phones in Baltimore, one of the prisoners, while placing smuggling-related calls ended “virtually all” of his calls saying “I love you” to the corrupt guard on the other end. Tavon White, himself, fathered five children by four of the female guards, two of whom tattooed his name on their bodies. In Brazil, Camacho’s gang, the Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) uses its calls to arrange personal support for members as well as logistical support for crimes. The gang allows members to borrow weapons from a gun library but also arranges rides for the families of inmates to visit their loved ones in jail.

It may be tempting to assume we can just disrupt these networks by isolating prisoners. We could ignore moral and medical concerns about solitary confinement (as California has) or install some twenty-first century update of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon that could detect and disrupt any form of communication. At best, this would put prisoners in a kind of stasis, where they couldn’t form new friendships, but, when their sentences were up, they’d still be likely to return to the communities they relied on in the past.

In order to prepare for the return of convicts who have completed their sentences, their releases shouldn’t mark the start of their reentry. It is not enough to simple disrupt the support networks that prisoners rely on. For our safety and theirs, we must build alternative communities of mutual dependence that begin in prison, and continue to provide support after their release.

Vocational training and educational programs are important, but need to retain a focus on giving purpose to life in prison, not just preparing skills for a moment many years away. Some prisons have had inmates stage theatrical productions, so that the prisoners have the chance to come together to make something they can have a little more pride in than another license plate, something that points beyond their current conditions. Prison ministries, like the one Richard Beck describes, can also create a sense of community devoted to something larger than oneself.

Lacking these alternatives, the explosion of cell phones in prisons, and associated investigations have given us a kind of preview of data that would have otherwise shown up years later in recidivism statistics. Cell phones speed up the messages that would have otherwise been relayed by hand gestures or pipe taps, but the real problem is the kinds of communities that prisoners end up relying on, during their sentences and afterwards.

Ultimately, the problem isn’t that Tavon White and his fellow prisoners had phones. The problem is who they felt they could call on.

Leah Libresco is an editorial assistant at the American Conservative and blogs about religion at Unequally Yoked.

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Articles by Leah Libresco

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