Folks in the free world may chatter all they like about Apple's sleek new iPhone, but citizens on lockdown must rely on more antiquated forms of communication.
Graphic: Potty mouths
Inventive inmates at facilities around the country speak jail cell-to-jail cell using their commodes, a phenomenon known to wardens, correctional officers and attorneys as "toilet talk."
Some toilet talk is mundane. A pair of inmates might call out chess moves. Some prisoners have used the sewage pipes as a conduit to pick up prisoners of the opposite sex. And in at least two cases, inmates have had commode conversations about criminal matters that were used as testimony or evidence in court.
On Tuesday, Geneva Burrell, who had been incarcerated at Allegheny County Jail for double homicide, testified in court that she emptied the water from her cell's toilet trap, stuck her head inside the bowl and regularly spoke with her boyfriend. The boyfriend, Erik Surratt, 19, who also was incarcerated for the killings, was lodged above her at the jail.
Jail officials, upon discovering that Ms. Burrell and Mr. Surratt had used the toilet to talk to each other, moved Mr. Surratt to another part of the jail.
Ms. Burrell, who had been in jail for 22 months, testified against Mr. Surratt in court and has been released on house arrest. The district attorney has said he may drop the murder charges against her.The defense lawyer for Mr. Surratt said, however, he has four witnesses prepared to testify that they were housed in the same column of cells as Ms. Burrell and reportedly overheard her say she would do whatever she had to do get out of jail.
Inmates get sanctioned if they're caught with their heads in the toilet bowl, yet Warden Ramon Rustin says toilet talk has been a daily occurrence since the high-rise facility opened in 1995.
"Inmates will strike up a conversation about anything," said the warden, who can hear muffled chatter through the water in his office's commode all the time. "They have 24/7 to think of ways to beat the system."
Mr. Rustin said he does not consider toilet chat a significant security risk and he could not imagine sticking his head in the commode to overhear what are mostly throwaway conversations.
But the U.S. Attorney in Philadelphia thought differently and got the FBI to wiretap the toilets at the city's downtown Federal Detention Facility to track members of a drug trafficking operation. Richard Manieri, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's office, said federal prosecutors used toilet conversations to secure hefty sentences against co-defendants Kaboni Savage and Dawud Bey. Federal agents tapped the prison plumbing system and got a recording of Mr. Bey threatening to kill witnesses who might testify against prisoners charged for their involvement in the drug network.
Communication through toilets and air vents is fairly common in jails and prisons, according to several correctional officials surveyed.
It's been reported to occur daily at the high-rise, maximum-security Multnomah County Detention Center in Oregon and inmates in California's San Quentin State Prison, in California, used decades ago it to pass the time in solitary confinement.
Western Pennsylvania also has its share of prisoners who make use of the plumbing.
"We have dormitory style [cells] where the female range is close to the male range and sometimes the females talk to the males through the toilet. I think it's nasty," said Deputy Warden Art Marx of the Butler County Jail. He said the facility is old and "that won't happen" in the new jail the county is building.
At maximum-security State Correctional Institution Greene, spokesman Dan Davis said next door cell mates can chat through "pipe chases in between the cells." A pipe chase is like a vent or crawl space that holds a system of pipes. He said, "We don't allow it," but added, "that's constantly how they communicate."
"They play games, they play chess. 'Move my pawn.' They could threaten each other that way," Mr. Davis said.
Inmates at Fayette County Prison also use the pipe chase vent system at the facility built in 1869, according to Warden Larry Medlock. Inmates use the pipe chase to "yell back and forth." He chuckled at the idea of inmates actually putting their heads in a commode, because in Fayette County it's easier to get messages through without soiling yourself.
Deputy Warden Erna Craig at Mercer County Prison said in her 27 years in corrections she'd never heard of toilet talk.
The Mercer facility, which opened in 2005, was designed by L. Robert Kimball & Associates, the same firm that built Allegheny County Jail. Ms. Craig said perhaps Kimball, which is based in Ebensburg and has designed more than 135 correctional facilities in 14 states, has alleviated that design glitch since the Allegheny County facility was built.
Warden Rustin, of Allegheny County admitted, "It's an issue. I wish they would have had it designed differently to prevent the communication back and forth."
Most cells in the Allegheny County Jail have stainless steel commodes, but the lower floors have porcelain toilets. Unlike a household toilet, they do not have a reserve tank, but instead utilize the industrial flushometer system that uses high pressure water, rather than gravity to fill the bowl, said Tom Donatelli, director of public works.
Callers willing to risk a misconduct warning and 24-hour lockdown scoop the water from the trap, a U-shaped pipe, and speak or listen through the toilet drain to any inmates who've drained toilets in the cells above and below them.
"The cells were built right on top of each other so it could be as many as 16 cells" that share a single drainage system, Warden Rustin said. Strangers eavesdrop on private calls and the sound "is pretty clear," he said, even if you don't go through all that messy bother.
Gabrielle Banks can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1370.