When you think of all the things that prisoners aren’t allowed to have on them, cell phones might not top the list. But, for prison officials, they do.
“Prison officials see this as the most dangerous form of contraband,” says Kevin Roose, senior editor at Fusion, whose ongoing three-part story explored how prisoners use technology.
U.S. Prisons, says Roose, are spending millions of dollars to keep cell phones out of prisons.
Mostly because they have been used in the past to harass victims or even coordinate crimes from behind bars.
Now, prisons are trying out something called a “managed access system.” It acts like a cell tower, and intercepts data and calls from the person using the phone before they reach the carrier. If you are not one of the people authorised to be sending or receiving calls or texts, you’re blocked from doing so. Managed access systems can cost up to $1 million, but many correctional systems think they have a better chance blocking the phones than keeping them out of the hands of inmates.
Why? Because the phones are usually smuggled in by the guards themselves, who, according to Roose, charge prisoners “hundreds or thousands of dollars a piece.” Soon, an “underground economy” crops up: an inmate who has a phone starts renting it out to others.
But not everyone is using cell phones for the same purpose. In some cases, Roose found, people just wanted to find a way to “stave off the loneliness.” Like one man who makes 6 second videos for Vine. He even has a couple of hundred followers.
My hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin, used to be famous for its refreshing, clear spring water. Back in the late 19th century, people flocked to Waukesha to drink water at mineral springs and hang out at fancy summer resorts and mud baths. But those good water days are past. Now, the city’s making headlines because the drinking water from its deepest wells are tainted with radium. The city is looking to ditch those underground wells and permanently get its drinking water from Lake Michigan, 15 miles to the east. But that proposal is neither cheap, nor without controversy.
The water from Waukesha’s deep wells draw water that’s over three times the federal limit for radium. Radium occurs naturally, but lifetime exposure is a cancer risk. And the deeper you go in the sandstone aquifer underneath the region, the more radium in the water.
Waukesha is under a consent order to fix the problem. Since the mid-2000’s, it’s been diluting its bad water with radium-free water from shallow wells. But it still doesn’t meet federal requirements on hot summer days. So the city is proposing what it sees as the best long-term solution, a pipeline to Lake Michigan.
“Really, it’s a no brainer of a decision,” says Dan Duchniak, general manager of the Waukesha Water Utility. “The Great Lakes is the best, most reliable and only reasonable alternative for the city of Waukesha.”
Certainly it’s the least complicated solution for the city. But the Great Lakes Compact, which governs water diversions from the five Great Lakes, doesn’t care about simple and direct. The compact was enacted, in part, out of fears that drought-prone cities in the Southwest might someday get desperate enough to make a bid for Great Lakes water. So the compact’s framers made it difficult for cities beyond the Great Lakes basin to divert water from the lakes, even cities as close as Waukesha.
“We have had some unbelievable policy and big programs designed to move water great distances, and now we’re starting to see there are problems with that,” says Peter McAvoy, counsel for the Great Lakes Compact Implementation Coalition, a watchdog group.
Under the compact, Waukesha will have to prove it can’t find a reasonable alternative to Lake Michigan closer to home, among other demands. All eight of the Great Lakes states, from Minnesota to New York, have to sign off on Waukesha’s diversion request. Even Quebec and Ontario get to comment.
Waukesha’s request and the response to it will set a precedent under the compact. It’s the first time a city outside the Great Lakes basin has asked to divert water from one of the lakes. Eric Ebersberger, chief of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ water use section, says the burden of proof will be heavy.
“The administration here has been very clear that this should be very difficult,” Ebersberger says. “It should be difficult to prove up an application for a diversion.”
Under the rules of the compact, Waukesha would be required to treat and return the water it takes from the lake, and the amount of water the city is asking for is relatively trivial. But the state has asked the city for thousands of pages of documentation since it first applied five years ago. Not surprisingly, politics has delayed the process, too. Initial talks with Milwaukee to supply the water fell apart.
Peter Annin, author of “The Great Lakes Water Wars,” says it boils down to this: “The citizens of Milwaukee say, if you want to use Lake Michigan water, move to our great city and use it. We don’t want to see it leaving town and contributing to sprawl in the suburbs.”
Waukesha has since struck a deal to buy Lake Michigan water from Oak Creek, a Milwaukee suburb. But the city’s plans have raised regional debate about what it means for a city to live within its water supply. The suspicion that Waukesha is leveraging its water plan for economic growth persists, because the city's application asks for more water than it currently uses and anticipates supplying water to areas currently outside its borders.
Peter McAvoy says that will raise red flags with the states deciding Waukesha’s water fate. “Their own studies show that they’re talking about industrial and business growth,” McAvoy says. “Is that reasonable? Will that come at the expense of other communities in the Great Lakes?”
Here's Peter McAvoy talking about the importance of Lake Michigan:
Just how much growth and what kind the compact allows water applicants isn’t clear. Waukesha officials insist the growth they anticipate is modest and follows regional planning guidelines. They don’t want to underestimate future water needs, especially in the middle of an economic recovery. If they did, they’d have to go back and ask for more, starting the long application process all over again.
“Development that happens in Waukesha is not a zero sum game where we take it away from Milwaukee,” insists Waukesha mayor Shawn Reilly.
If Waukesha loses its bid for Lake Michigan water, it’ll have to come up with more local alternatives. Skeptics of the city’s Lake Michigan bid have urged Waukesha to look at options like drilling more shallow wells, along with stricter water conservation and higher water rates. They’ve also urged the city to consider riverbank inducement wells or even a wastewater recycling plant.
Water levels in the deep aquifer have rebounded some since 2000, a factor that could weaken the city’s argument for Great Lakes water. But the city insists the deep aquifer isn’t sustainable and has rejected other, more local solutions as either too short-term, environmentally problematic, or too pricey.
Doug Cherkauer, a hydrogeologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, says he understands why Waukesha chose Lake Michigan to solve its water crisis.
“It’s cheaper, easier and more direct,” he says. “But the ultimate solution in the case of Waukesha and nationally is to treat our wastewater to the point that it’s not contaminated anymore. That’s technologically possible now. It’s not cheap.”
Whatever Waukesha ends up doing to fix its water problem won’t be cheap. Utility head Dan Duchniak expects water rates to double, if not triple in the future. Paul Vrakas, 87, a former mayor, says back in the 70’s and 80’s, city leaders thought water was “a bottomless pit.” Now he thinks otherwise.
“We’ve lived in our country with these important things that we need in our lives being very cheap,” Vrakas says. “Well, we’re going to have to spend more money on that important stuff than on an extra pair of jeans, do you know what I’m saying?”
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