After complaining for years about the problem of cellphones in prisons, corrections officials in South Carolina said the inevitable finally happened.
On April 15, large groups of inmates at the Lee Correctional facility began rioting using homemade knives.
When order was restored the next day, seven inmates were dead and another 17 injured. No staff were injured.
Afterward, South Carolina Corrections Department Director Bryan Stirling blamed cellphones for helping fuel the state’s deadliest prison riot and renewed his request to federal officials that his agency be permitted to jam the cellphone signals at the prison.
“What we believe from the initial investigation is that this was all about territory,” Stirling said. “This was about contraband. This was about cellphones, and you’ve heard us talk about these over and over again.
“That’s why we’ve been leading the effort in South Carolina to ask the FCC to allow us to block this signal,” Stirling said.
Oklahoma has its own challenges in addressing cellphones in prison. In 2016 and 2017, nearly 17,000 contraband cellphones were seized in Oklahoma prisons. The phones are used for a variety of purposes, including coordinating illegal operations outside of prison walls.
A months-long Tulsa World investigation into the problem with cellphone use by prisoners found that since 2014, over 160 individuals have been charged in connection with prison-based drug trafficking organizations.
Law enforcement officials and corrections department officials are aware of the problems inside Oklahoma’s prisons. But they face the same challenge as South Carolina: How to stop it.
Current federal law bans the blanket use of jamming technology, although systems that target cell signals are permitted with restrictions. So South Carolina and other states have asked Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to ease restrictions on cellphone jamming.
“We’ve got a problem,” Stirling said in an interview with the World prior to the April prison riot. “It’s a major issue, not only in South Carolina, but across the country and in federal prisons ... for well over a decade.”
‘Dropped’ illicit packages
As prison officials ramp up their efforts to keep cellphones out of the hands of prisoners, inmates continue to think of new ways to get them inside.
Phones are often simply tossed or dropped over the prison walls or fence.
Richard Salter, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of Oklahoma at the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said in one case, a traffic stop led the DEA to what could be best described as large dinosaur eggs in the trunk of the vehicle.
The large rock-looking things were wrapped in camouflage duct tape and were believed to be headed to a nearby prison.
After cutting the object open, agents found cellphone components and tobacco inside.
“And what they do is they will take these things at night and they will go throw them over the gates of the prisons into the yard,” Salter said. “They can sit there for a few days before someone picks them up.”
Chuck Sullivan, the district attorney whose district includes Oklahoma State Penitentiary (OSP) in McAlester, said he has seen several cases where people stopped outside prison walls were carrying illicit care packages meant for prisoners.
Inmates from the nearby Jackie Brannon penitentiary, a minimum security facility whose occupants often serve as trusties inside the McAlester maximum-security prison, may be responsible for a large number of the cellphones inside OSP, said Adam Scharn, first assistant district attorney in Sullivan’s office.
Both Sullivan and Scharn said lawmakers should increase the penalty for possession of a contraband cellphone on prison grounds.
The current minimum sentence is three years in prison.
“If the highest the minimum can be is three years and somebody is already doing 20, if I add three more years on the end of it, it doesn’t feel like it’s going to be very much of a deterrent,” Scharn said.
While Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics officials report high levels of cooperation from DOC in their cases, Scharn said he has noticed a decline in phone contraband cases brought to his office.
“A couple of years ago, we were seeming to be getting one or two a week,” Scharn said.
Sullivan agreed. “I can’t tell you in the last six months that we have filed one,” he said, referring to contraband cellphone charges.
“I can only speculate. And I don’t know if the Department of Corrections is simply handling that internally when they discover it and they are punishing the inmate on their own,” Sullivan said.
Department of Corrections Director Joe Allbaugh declined to be interviewed for this story, referring questions to William Monday, the DOC Region 2 director and a prison spokesman.
And while Monday did not directly address the reduction in filed cases at OSP, he said corrections officials generally exercise discretion when deciding whether to file charges against an inmate found with a cellphone.
It costs the corrections department about $500 in court fees every time a charge is filed against an inmate, Monday said.
“But certainly, they are held accountable by administrative misconducts and there is a penalty for having that,” Monday said. “There’s ramifications and sanctions they receive for having those devices.”
Monday said “weaker inmates” are more likely to be found with cellphones, carrying them for more powerful inmates.
“If I’m a strong, strong inmate in the prison system, you’re probably not going to catch me with a cellphone,” Monday said.
Knowing those circumstances exist, Monday said, corrections officials “try to be fair” and yet still hold the inmate accountable administratively.
The scope of Oklahoma’s problem
In Oklahoma, corrections officials reported finding nearly 7,000 cellphones in 2017 in its facilities and in private prisons.
The number marks an improvement from the prior year, when prison officials seized a record 9,766 phones.
To illustrate the volume, a collection of phones seized by prison officials during a six-month period ending in January covers a 12-foot long conference table, 10-deep in spots.
Despite facing additional time in prison if caught with a cellular device, phones are coveted among inmates, especially those running illegal drug rings from behind bars.
Inmates, many violent gang members, also use the smuggled cellphones to trade for other items, call relatives, post on social media, run blackmail scams, or even order retribution on others both inside and outside the prison walls.
“A lot of those guys at OSP have nothing to lose,” Monday said.
“That’s their only means of income ... and a lot of them are doing a lot of time so they have nothing to lose,” Monday said. Inmates think: “‘What are you going to do, give me another life sentence?’ ”
Prisons ‘under attack’
From South Carolina, Stirling said prisons are “under attack” from outside the prison walls.
Cellphones are being brought in to prison by staff, outside vendors, civilians and even drones, he said.
“Prisons used to be designed to keep people in, not necessarily keep things out,” Stirling said.
After the riot, Stirling said South Carolina prison officials plan to meet with cellphone industry leaders in hopes of finding ways to stop the use of cellphones by inmates, Stirling said.
“But until that’s done, the folks who are incarcerated are going to continue their criminal ways from behind bars, which is not only dangerous inside our institutions but it’s also dangerous outside our institutions,” Stirling said.
Before the riot, South Carolina prison officials took what steps they could to limit the ways phones can be brought into prison.
The agency has cleared brush and trees around facility perimeters “so people can’t come up and throw a package or a football full of cellphones in the yard,” Stirling said, “because we have a lot of problems with throw-overs.”
The agency also hires area sheriff departments to patrol randomly outside corrections department facilities in hopes of stopping the influx of “contraband groups who try to smuggle stuff in.”
One of the most ambitious steps, perhaps, is the installation of golf course style netting on top of all facility fences.
The netting project will cost the South Carolina agency up to $7 million to complete.
And yet, South Carolina DOC officials continue to find cellphones inside their facilities.
In 2017, South Carolina officials recovered 6,200 cellphones and cellphone accessories such as chargers and SIM cards, Stirling said.
The prior year, South Carolina officials found 7,200 cellphones/parts. South Carolina’s prison population is about 19,300 inmates, compared to 27,100 housed in Oklahoma.
While prison officials continue efforts to stop inmates from getting their hands on wireless devices, a small number of state prison systems have turned to using technology to render such devices useless.
Prisons in Indiana, Georgia, Texas, California, Florida, Maryland and Mississippi have installed radio-based systems that act as a cellular base station. Such systems allow authorized numbers access to the cellular network while unauthorized numbers are blocked.
But many states have complained that the equipment is costly and the process to implement unwieldy.
Studies have shown some systems designed to block outside access by cellphones can cost as much as $1 million to $5 million to install, depending on the size of the facility.
This does not include monitoring and upgrade costs and other fees.
Still, Stirling said South Carolina is moving to implement such a system in some of its facilities.
“It’s a lot of money and there’s mixed reviews, but as a director, I feel like I have to go everywhere and look everywhere for solutions. And this is a solution that we are looking at to try and see if it works,” Stirling said.
“One of the things that’s on the table and that we have discussed, and I know the cellphone companies don’t like this, is jamming,” Stirling said.
Current federal law prohibits the jamming of cellphone signals.
The wireless phone industry worries that signal jamming could affect customers outside the prison walls. Stirling said no more studies are needed.
“The time to talk has got to stop,” Stirling said. “We need to come together and talk about solutions to this public safety issue.”
Be it cellphone jamming or the use of managed access systems to control which calls get out, Oklahoma prison employees have for years advocated for help in stemming the use of contraband cellphones.
“There are several new technologies that we would love to see (implemented) within Oklahoma Department of Corrections,” said Jackie Switzer, Executive Director for the Oklahoma Corrections Professionals.
Prisoners with cellphones pose a safety risk not only to the general public, but to corrections workers, too, Switzer said.
“There have been documented instances where hits have been called on correctional officers and correctional staff, because of something they may have done in the course of their duties,” Switzer said. “We are very lucky it hasn’t happened at a greater rate here.”
Switzer said he believes corrections department administrators and rank-and-file employees are doing everything they can to limit inmates’ access to cellphones.
“But without some sort of funding or outside assistance, it’s not going to go away,” Switzer said, referring to inmate cellphone usage.
Sen. Micheal Bergstrom, R-Adair, hoped legislation he authored this session would make it easier for corrections department officials to implement such new technologies.
Bergstrom said a warden in his Senate District 1 was the inspiration for Senate Bill 1237.
The warden said “the number one thing putting his people at risk was the number of cellphones being smuggled into the prison,” Bergstrom said.
“The bill would allow the director to participate in a federally supported or other pilot program, or use funds he deems appropriate,” Bergstrom said. “Obviously we need more funding for the Department of Corrections, and the budgeting process is just now beginning. However, at this time no funds are designated specifically for this.”
The bill died in a House committee this session.
What Oklahoma can do
While technological solutions exist to possibly rein in the problem, federal law and costs associated with the equipment hinder Oklahoma prisons from utilizing them.
But Oklahoma prison officials have taken a range of measures in recent years to stem the use of cellphones by inmates.
First, anyone who enters a prison, including employees, is subjected to a pat search and must pass through a metal detector, Monday said.
Once inside, guards routinely conduct random inmate pat and cell searches. Sometimes inmates are strip searched.
Corrections department officials also have purchased for each facility devices called Cellsense towers, which are portable devices placed inside facility hallways that can detect a cellular phone signal when someone with a device walks by it.
Each device costs the corrections department about $12,000, Monday said.
The department also has purchased so-called deep tissue scanners that can detect any foreign device inside a body, metal or nonmetal.
The corrections department also has put boots on the ground, so to speak, in its war on cellphones. They’ve purchased dogs that are trained to sniff out cellphones.
Despite the preventative measures, Monday said, a simpler method proves most successful in finding phones and other contraband.
“Honestly, walking, talking, searching,” Monday said. “Being in the inmates’ business. Being out there among the inmates. Walking and talking is probably the most successful.”