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How Prison Drug Dealing by Phone Has Changed

The '90s were the heyday of running drug empires from federal prison, inmates tell The Fix. But cell phones have offered new possibilities.

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Drug dealers can find it easy to continue their
trade. Photo via

By Seth Ferranti

10/02/12

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Back in the '90s, when the War on Drugs was in high gear, federal prison was drug dealer central. "People were sitting in prison, making drug deals," one prisoner tells The Fix. "Not to say that they aren't now, but back then it was crazy. It was much easier to sell drugs in prison because you're right there where the people that have direct access to the narcotics that you need are—the Colombians, Cubans and Mexicans." Before 1999, federal prisoners had unlimited and unrestricted phone access. Inmates with clout would block off hours of phone use at a time to conduct their transactions. "I would make 60 calls in a day, sometimes using two lines at once," the prisoner says. "It was something for me to do. It was just about everybody inside the jail in some way, shape, form or fashion dealing drugs, directly or indirectly."

What the federal drug warriors didn't figure on when they started locking up dealers in huge numbers, was that they were actually making it easier for them to continue to ply their trade—by incarcerating all the different dealers, of diverse nationalities and locations, together. "The temptation was there," the prisoner says. "You had people everyday hooking up drug deals and most were arranged by phone." Things are a little different now. Due to all the federal cases and investigations around drug empires run from behind bars, the Bureau of Prisons enacted new phone policies in 1999—including allowing each prisoner only 300 minutes per month, as well as other restrictions. Still, "In reality they haven't stopped anything," the prisoner says. "Just look at the news. Dudes are just using cell phones to make drug deals now."

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