When Paola, 35, heard she and her cellmates would be allowed mobile phones in their prison cell at the start of the global Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, she celebrated ecstatically. “It felt like freedom,” she recalled. “But they were [just] cellphones!” After one of her fellow inmates in the Penitentiary Unit 47 in Buenos Aires’ northern district of San Martín gave her a phone as a gift, Paola’s first call was to her neighbor, whose number she knew by heart, to ask him if her son was around. She wanted to ask for his cellphone number, so they could chat. 

Paola, who, like the other women Rest of World spoke with for this story, asked to be referred to by only her first name, was already six months into her 4-year-sentence when — for the first time in the penitentiary — the Argentine government approved cellphones for inmates just as the first global Covid-19 outbreak spread. On March 20, 2020, Argentine President Alberto Fernández announced a strict quarantine that would extend into the majority of that year. For prisons, it meant no visits, in-prison classes, or work outings. The isolation that most of the world went through during those first days of the pandemic was extreme for those inside jails: The ties with the outside world were completely severed, thanks to a pandemic that spread disease and fear on both sides of prison walls.

Ten days later, the Province of Buenos Aires’ Court of Appeals authorized the use of cellphones for inmates in the province. Buenos Aires has the highest number of prisons and detainees in the country, with an overpopulation rate of 111% across 66 detention facilities. The Penitentiary Unit 47 is one of them; it’s a mixed-gendered prison with ten wards for men and four for women. Rest of World spoke to inmates, criminal defenders, and law experts in the province to see how access to devices and the accompanying technology changed daily life in the prisons, not just for the inmates and their defenders, but for the guards and officers as well.

“Cellphones have always existed in prisons… everybody knows that they are essential,” lawyer and human rights advocate Claudia Cesaroni told Rest of World. In fact, Buenos Aires province is only one of four provinces that implemented this measure. “The Buenos Aires inmates have a right that inmates in other jurisdictions don’t,” she explains.

The ability to use cellphones legally made life in prison much easier for inmates, especially during the period of double isolation caused by the quarantine. “Before phones, we fought more, and now you don’t see that anymore,” said Paola. Phones allowed prisoners to speak to loved ones, attend 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 were even able to attend virtual meetings at their children’s school.

Currently, the four provinces which have implemented this measure are Buenos Aires, Tucumán, Chubut, and Mendoza. This leaves over two thirds of Argentine prisons without legal access to cellphones. In 2020, inmates were deprived of visits for more than seven months of quarantine.

“Before phones, we fought more, and now you don’t see that anymore.”

According to Alejandra Álvarez, a member of La Asociación Pensamiento Penal, or the APP (an organization that advocates for human rights within the criminal justice system), there are many reasons why the penitentiary system in the majority of prisons in Argentina would resist this policy. “[The penitentiary system], ​​like any outdated institution, has an aversion to big changes.” 

Argentine social media users, news outlets, and TV shows continue to condemn the ruling almost two years after it was implemented. The core of the controversy revolves around a much bigger topic, which is the assumption that convicts and prisoners should not be entitled to fundamental rights simply because they have committed a crime. This is why in its ruling, the Court of Appeals linked the phone prohibition to the curtailment of other rights, like access to education. It quoted the American Convention on Human Rights and the Nelson Mandela Rules. “We’re here to serve a sentence, [but] we have the same rights as the people on the streets,” Paola said. 

Phones have also enabled access to digital payments methods like Mercado Pago and Ualá. This has allowed inmates to buy products 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 resort city of Mar del Plata, used their Instagram account to join internet solidarity campaigns, and launch their own university course about human rights in prison. In many ways, cellphones bridge the gap between the lives in and out of prison.

Across large complexes like the Unit 47, phones have also boosted in-prison communication between inmates. Cristina, 42, is serving a four-year sentence in the same ward as Paola, but in a different cell. She runs a WhatsApp group where inmates provide updates and useful information about activities and courses inside the prison. Each cell has a representative in the WhatsApp group, who is responsible for letting other cellmates know the weekly agendas. “We also let each other know if one leaves prison for work, so that the rest can tell us if they need something from the outside,” she said.

In November 2020, during riots in various Buenos Aires prisons, inmates used their phones to share videos and TikToks documenting police brutality against them. After the events, human rights organizations presented hundreds of habeas corpus petitions, using videos to help establish the legitimacy of their claims. 

The initial ruling that allowed cellphones in prisons was only intended to span the length of the Covid-19 quarantine, but as restrictions were lifted, the ruling remained in place. Contrary to popular opinion, prisoner rights’ experts interviewed by Rest of World agreed that using phones did not spark more in-prison crime, and the phones generally made life easier for inmates, guards, and workers in the prison complexes. 

Families and human rights organizations have called upon the government to safeguard this new right, as well as extend it to other prisons. “Access to phones in prison is a measure that reduces conflict,” Cesaroni, the lawyer and human rights advocate, told Rest of World. She evoked the normality principle, according to which life in prison should feel like normal life as much as possible. “Blocking this access is punishment for the sake of punishment.” 

Both Paola and Cristina agree that rescinding the inmate’s access to phones would lead to conflict and chaos. “The phone is everything to me,” said Paola. “I feel calmer when I have it… I can study, learn new things. I can’t imagine being here without it because —” 

“It would drive us crazy,” Cristina, her wardmate, interjected.

When asked if there was anything she’d like to do with her phone that she could not, Paola replied: “I wish I could walk through the screen and hug my son, but I can’t do that yet.”