When Paola, 35, learned that she and her cellmates would be allowed to use mobile phones in their prison cell at the start of the global Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, she celebrated ecstatically. “It was like freedom,” she recalls. “But they were [just] cell phones!” After one of her fellow inmates in penitentiary unit 47 in the northern neighborhood of San Martín, in Buenos Aires, offered her a phone, Paola first called her neighbor, whose number she knew by heart , to ask if her son was around. She wanted to ask for his cell phone number, so they could chat.
Paola, who, like the other women Rest of the world talked about this story, asked to be mentioned only by his first name, was already six months into his 4-year sentence when – for the first time in the penitentiary – the Argentine government approved mobile phones for inmates just like the first world Spread of the Covid-19 epidemic. On March 20, 2020, Argentina President Alberto Fernández announced a strict quarantine that would continue for most of this year. For prisons, that meant no visits, prison classes or work trips. The isolation that most of the world went through during those early days of the pandemic was extreme for those inside prisons: ties with the outside world were completely severed, thanks to a pandemic that spread sickness and fear on both sides of the prison walls.
Ten days later, the Court of Appeals of the province of Buenos Aires authorized the use of mobile phones for detainees in the province. Buenos Aires has the largest number of prisons and inmates in the country, with a overpopulation rate 111% in 66 detention centers. Prison Unit 47 is one of them; it is a mixed prison with ten wards for men and four for women. Rest of the world spoke with inmates, criminal rights advocates and legal experts across the province to see how access to devices and the technology that goes with them has changed daily life in prisons, not just for inmates and their defenders, but also for guards and agents.
“Mobile phones have always existed in prisons… everyone knows they are essential,” said Claudia Cesaroni, a lawyer and human rights defender. Rest of the world. In fact, the province of Buenos Aires is only one of four provinces that have implemented this measure. “Detainees in Buenos Aires have a right that detainees in other jurisdictions do not have,” she explains.
The ability to legally use cell phones has made life in prison much easier for inmates, especially during the period of double solitary confinement caused by quarantine. “Before the phones, we fought more, and now we don’t see that anymore,” said Paola. The phones allowed prisoners to talk to loved ones, go to school, work via Zoom and Google Meet, share photos on Instagram, watch YouTube and TikToks, read e-books and do yoga . Thanks to the phones, some inmates have even been able to attend virtual meetings at their children’s school.
Currently, the four provinces that have implemented this measure are Buenos Aires, Tucumán, Chubut and Mendoza. This leaves more than two-thirds of Argentine prisons without legal access to cellphones. In 2020, detainees were deprived of visits for more than seven months of quarantine.
According to Alejandra Álvarez, member of La Asociación Pensamiento Penal, or APPLICATION (an organization that defends human rights within the criminal justice system), there are many reasons why the prison system in the majority of Argentine prisons would resist this policy. “[The penitentiary system]like any outdated institution, has an aversion to big changes.
Argentine social media users, mediaand TV shows continue to condemn the decision nearly two years after its implementation. The heart of the controversy revolves around a much larger topic, namely the assumption that convicts and prisoners should not have the right to fundamental rights simply because they have committed a crime. This is why, in its judgment, the Court of Appeal linked the prohibition of the telephone to the restriction of other rights, such as access to education. He cited the American Convention on Human Rights and the Nelson Mandela Rules. “We are here to serve a sentence, [but] we have the same rights as people on the street,” said Paola.
The phones also enabled access to digital payment methods like Mercado Pago and Ualá. This allowed inmates to purchase commodities in prison and receive money from their families without having to wait for their deposits or cash. A group called ‘Taller Solidario Liberté’, filled with prisoners in the Mar del Plata resort, used their Instagram account to join online solidarity campaignsand start their own university Classes on human rights in prison. In many ways, cell phones bridge the gap between life in prison and life outside.
In large compounds like Unit 47, telephones have also boosted prison communication between inmates. Cristina, 42, is serving a four-year sentence in the same neighborhood as Paola, but in a different cell. She runs a WhatsApp group where inmates provide useful updates and information on activities and classes inside the prison. Each cell has a representative in the WhatsApp group, which is responsible for letting other cellmates know about the weekly agendas. “We also find out if any of them get out of prison to work, so the others can let us know if they need anything from outside,” she said.
In November 2020, during riots in various prisons in Buenos Aires, inmates used their phones to share videos and TikToks documenting police brutality against them. After the events, human rights organizations submitted hundreds of habeas corpus petitions, using videos to help establish the legitimacy of their claims.
The original decision that allowed mobile phones in prisons was only meant to cover the duration of the Covid-19 quarantine, but as restrictions were lifted the decision remained in place. Contrary to popular opinion, prisoners’ rights experts interviewed by Rest of the world agreed that the use of phones did not lead to more crimes in prison and that phones generally made life easier for inmates, guards and prison complex workers.
Families and human rights organizations have called the government to safeguard this new right, as well as to extend it to other prisons. “Access to phones in prison is a measure that reduces conflict,” said Cesaroni, the lawyer and human rights defender. Rest of the world. She referred to the principle of normality, according to which life in prison should resemble normal life as much as possible. “Blocking this access is punishment for the sake of punishment.”
Both Paola and Cristina agree that removing the inmate’s access to the phones would lead to conflict and chaos. “The phone is everything to me,” Paola said. “I feel calmer when I have it… I can study, learn new things. I can’t imagine being here without it because…”
“That would drive us crazy,” interjected Cristina, her roommate.
When asked if there was anything she’d like to do with her phone that she couldn’t, Paola replied, “I wish I could walk across the screen and kiss my son, but I can’t. not do it yet.”