The Cell and the Cell Phone
Thailand’s 3G Prisons By Christopher G. Moore
The idea of prison is a convicted criminal is removed from society and locked in a facility where his freedom of movement and association is limited. A prisoner occupies a cell. Unless he’s in solitary, the prisoner also has access to other facilities such as dinning hall, library, exercise room, and TV room. Punishment means removal from society. Loss of freedom. Loss of liberty. And loss of opportunities to conduct a business or trade.
Then came the cell phone. Given recent events in a Thai prison, it might be argued that ‘cell’ phone is a good description of the mobile phones with cheap SIM cards that can put a drug dealer in contact with his organization. Add the iPad, iPhone, and hard drive for backups, being in prison doesn’t really mean the same thing as in the old analog world where a man had to be physically present to oil the machinery on the illegal treadmill that sent drugs in one direction and received money from the other.
If you are going to run a home office out of your prison cell, the first thing you need to do is find a partner or two in authority. These are prison staff, officials, guards whose job is to make certain the prisoner is kept out of circulation for the term of his sentence. When most people think of prisons, if they think of them at all, the image is a tattooed murderer, rapist, robber or pedophile. The violent, twisted, dangerous dregs of society belong behind bars. It satisfies the human need to avenge the harm to victims, and also protects the members of society from suffering a similar fate at the hands of such predators.
Most prisons are filled with people from the illegal drug trade. They are more like businessmen than the general population. Thugs, gangster, ruthless and law-breaking businessmen to be sure. Given the overall ethical quality of workers in the finance and banking industry, these prisoners share more with the members of the Board of Directors of Goldman Sachs than with the child killer waiting for his day of reckoning on death row.
These are the kind of prisoners who have organizational skills, employees, and who have expertise in paying off the right people. Well, some expertise in paying off the right people or they wouldn’t be in prison. They can develop the pay off skill with some years in prison. They have an entire prison staff to practice on. The guards and staff are paid peanuts. The drug lords inside are making large profits and can offer incentives that would turn overnight an ordinary life of guarding prisoners and getting by in near poverty into a quantum leap into a better life of fancy houses, cars, and holidays.
You make something millions of people want illegal and you make a small group of people willing to break that law to reap the profits, which means you have the perfect storm that produces a new wave of convicts who in turn rather than being punished in prison, move their operation inside and joint venture with the officials running the place. Think of it as renting office space with bars on the windows and your own private security operation to protect you.
Cell phones for Cells. That could have been the lead in the recent Bangkok Post report about Nakhon Si Thammarat police chief’s statement that prisoners in his jail were working drug deals with prisoners at Bang Khwang Central Prison. How did the police chief figure this out? He conducted a raid last Sunday. The raid yielded “284 mobile phones, 1,700 methamphetamine pills, or ya ba, and 50g of crystal meth, or ya ice, in prison cells.” In a second raid on Monday, officials seized more than 10 phones and more than 100 inmates tested positive for drugs.
The betting money is that officials inside the prison tipped their paymasters in advance of the raid. Meaning that what was seized was only what couldn’t be hidden or taken out of the prison in advance of the raid. One general went on record to admit his frustration that some prisoners had advance warning of the raid. It’s hard to be surprised by their loyalty.
The prison officials take a hard look at their monthly government paycheck. Then they have long look at the revenue steam they get from convicted drug dealers inside the prison. The choice is drawing water from a leaky old tap or dipping over the edge of Niagara Falls. If water were money, where would you fill your bucket? All those extra zeros are bound to tip the scale of loyalty. Follow the money, as they say, and you can pretty much guess where a man’s loyalty lies.
It seems the men inside the joint had been running a large drug network with the digital trail running through the back jungle lanes in Laos and Myanmar. Meanwhile, the policy of dealing with illegal drugs hasn’t changed. The current government has sent the cops to arrest and if need be shoot drug ‘dealers’ (along with occasional innocent bystanders as collateral damage) as a public show of how they are cracking down on the illegal drug racket.
But the recent prison raid, it is arguable that the authorities have been looking in the wrong place. This puts the spotlight on an uncomfortable thought: that the people who are driving their pickups with a stash of drugs hidden inside are as much the problem as the convicted drug dealers who continue to run the business from behind bars.
The Justice Ministry announced a crackdown on drug trade in prisons. If you think that is going to work, please raise your hand. Like I thought, I see no hands raised. Doubling the pay of prison staff and officials isn’t going to help. The illegal money is far too much. Jam the cell phones. Someone will sell an anti-jammer device. Conduct more frequent raids. They will be scheduled to make certain the main business isn’t inconvenienced too much. Lock up inmates in bare cells with the lights on 24 hours a day. Human rights organizations descend along with camera crews and you face charges of human rights violations.
Here’s an idea. Why not reconsider the notion of criminalization of drugs? We assess how we characterize victimless crimes, addicts, and develop policies that reflect a difference between treatment and incarceration. That might just put the current crop of drug dealers in prison out of business, and return prison staff and officials to their duties where they’d relearn the art of living on a civil servant salary.
Otherwise, the government can pretend, as governments do in most places, that they are cracking down on illegal drugs and protecting society. When in reality the official policy effectively has moved the headquarter operation of the drug business off the streets and into a secure facility where the cops can’t ambush them and shoot them dead and claim self-defense.
The new globalized set of high tech savvy drug dealers who now live in prisons would be the first to resist decriminalization. If they had a lobbyist in this capitol or another and made large campaign contributions, they would be the first to support the current system of extra-judicial killings (a good way to teach the non-jailed drug dealers to stay out of their territory), occasional raids and crackdowns. It is a great cover for their operations. It allows politicians to stay popular by methods they insist is winning the war on drugs.
When we know that the war has already been won. Just visit a prison and you’ll find a band of the winners of the current policies. This elite class of prisoners is building themselves a nice little nest egg for the day they walk out of the prison gate. No doubt once out, they will miss the freedom they had on the inside. The outside world is far more dangerous and expensive.