This GAO photo shows contraband cellphones confiscated from inmates in the past year. (GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY OFFICE)

Federal law prohibits the use of cellphones by federal inmates, but the Federal Bureau of Prisons seized 8,656 cellphones from inmates in 2010, up from 1,774 in 2008, according to the report by the Government Accountability Office. More than three-quarters of the phones seized were from minimum-security prisons.

The Bureau of Prisons oversees more than 209,000 inmates nationwide with a budget of $6.4 billion.

The growing use of cellphones makes it harder for prison officials to track calls made by inmates — in some cases allowing them to continue committing crimes, GAO said. In one case, a federal inmate used a contraband cellphone behind bars to operate an identity-theft ring that rang up more than $254,000 worth of fraudulent credit card charges. The inmate is now serving an additional 14 years in prison.

Hand-held cellphone tracking devices such as this one are being used to track inmate phone use. (GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY OFFICE)

Contraband cellphones are also common in state prisons: The GAO found that California prison officials seized 10,700 cellphones from inmates in 2010 — up considerably from about 900 in 2007. The Maryland state prison system confiscated 1,128 phones in 2010, up from 741 in 2007.

Prison officials cited in the report said inmates are also seeking out cellphones to avoid paying local and long-distance telephone rates on prison-operated phones.

Most federal inmates are allowed to make 15-minute calls to family and friends, but the privilege is revoked if prison officials suspect an inmate is using call time inappropriately.

The BOP charges six cents per minute for local calls and 23 cents per minute for long distance. Revenues from the calls totaled $74 million in 2010 and are used to pay for prison amenities, including psychology, reading and arts programs and recreational activities, GAO said.

Though BOP’s per-minute call rates are lower than military prisons and most state facilities, GAO said that lowering the rates might compel inmates to stop seeking out contraband cellphones.

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