Politics & Government

4,815 phones taken from SC inmates in past year. Is the contraband crackdown working?

State lawmakers were shown photos Thursday of a convicted sex offender who posted a photo of himself on Facebook and then tried to befriend young women and of another inmate flashing a knife as long as his forearm.

The photos were taken on phones smuggled to inmates by visitors or, in some cases, the prison system’s own employees. Those phones, legislators were told, are sometimes used to run drug rings or even order executions.

State prison Director Bryan Stirling told lawmakers he is cracking down on phones and other contraband entering prisons. “They (inmates) should be in prison to rehabilitate,” not to engage in more criminal activity, he told four S.C. House and Senate members.

Stirling said more than 4,000 contraband cellphones or parts were seized in S.C. prisons during the past 12 months.

But finding cellphones and other prison contraband is not cheap. Three possible solutions, that Stirling outlined Thursday, would cost almost $19 million to fully employ.

Other efforts to combat cellphones in prisons — involving state and federal officials — have progressed, but not fast enough, Stirling and others said Thursday. Meanwhile, more than 100 South Carolinians have been arrested this year for trying to smuggle contraband into prisons.

The need to cut off the flow of contraband is pressing, officials said.

Prison officials say illegal cellphones — commonly used as currency in prisons — helped fuel an April prison riot at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville that resulted in the deaths of seven inmates and 22 injuries — one of the deadliest prison riots in U.S. history.

riot victims
These undated photos provided by the South Carolina Department of Corrections shows, from top row from left, Corey Scott, Eddie Casey Gaskins, Raymond Angelo Scott and Damonte Rivera; bottom row from left, Michael Milledge, Cornelius McClary and Joshua Jenkins. The seven inmates were killed, and at least 22 prisoners wounded, in a riot at the Lee Correctional Institution on early Monday, April 16, 2018, in Bishopville, S.C. South Carolina Department of Corrections via AP)

‘This is about ... safety’

Since taking over as prisons director in 2013, Stirling said, he has made changes to try to keep cellphones and other contraband out of prisons.

In the state’s 2018 fiscal year — which ended June 30 — 4,815 cellphones, phone parts or phone accessories were confiscated from S.C. inmates.

To stop the flow of contraband, the Corrections Department has installed technology at some prisons — costing the state about $240,000 — to alert officials when a drone is operating in the area for the purpose of delivering contraband to inmates.

At three of the state’s 11 medium- and high-security prisons, 50-foot-tall netting, similar to that seen at some golf courses, has been installed, reducing the chances that drugs and phones can be thrown or launched over prison fencing. The cost? Almost $9 million.

The state agency also is looking at a system that would block cellphone signals within prisons. To cover 17 prisons, that system would cost the state about $9 million a year.

Nationally, Stirling has been a leading advocate in trying to persuade the Federal Communications Commission to allow states to jam cell signals at prisons and jails. Republican Gov. Henry McMaster also has lobbied the federal government without success.

However, Stirling said his conversations with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai have been productive.

“The whole reason that the (wireless) industry has come to the table and met with us ... is because of Chairman Pai’s conversations and hearings and meetings,” Stirling told The State.

Stirling also credited the help of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams.

“Those two combinations have ... sent a strong message to the (cellphone) industry that the administration, the FCC and DOJ (Department of Justice) realize how dangerous a public safety matter these cellphones are.”

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State Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said Thursday he is glad to see what appears to be “a change of heart” from cellphone carriers.

“This isn’t about managing the prison,” he said. “This is about the safety of the citizens of South Carolina.”

‘They need to do hard time’

State prison officials also say they have amped up their efforts to find those smuggling contraband — including cellphones and drugs — to inmates.

Thus far this year, 61 South Carolinians have been arrested in contraband-related cases. Another nine corrections officers and 31 inmates have been arrested on similar charges. Those 101 arrests compare to 227 arrests in 2017.

Stirling told lawmakers Thursday that his agency’s efforts to jam cell signals are best illustrated by the near-fatal shooting in 2010 of corrections Capt. Robert Johnson, whose job included supervising a contraband team at Lee Correctional.

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In March 2010, an ex-inmate broke into Johnson’s Sumter home, shooting him in the stomach and chest six times with a .38-caliber revolver. The attack on Johnson was ordered from inside a prison by an inmate using an illegal cellphone.

Johnson has had 24 surgeries and plans to undergo another this fall.

Johnson, who Stirling called “a walking miracle,” attended Thursday’s hearing, assisted by a cane.

“There is no justification for an officer, who is sworn to uphold the law, to bring in drugs and only get probation,” Johnson told lawmakers, a remark aimed at the state’s lax penalties for smugglers who take contraband. into prisons. “They need to do hard time.”

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter

Confiscated cellphones

Prison system Director Bryan Stirling told S.C. lawmakers Thursday that state prisons are trying to crack down on cellphones and other contraband. Cellphones, in particular, are a problem, officials say, citing the numbers seized in prisons in recent years.

3,229, cellphones and accessories in 2014 fiscal year.

3,269, cellphones and accessories in 2015 fiscal year.

5,953, cellphones and accessories in 2016 fiscal year.

7,482, cellphones and accessories in 2017 fiscal year.

4,815, cellphones and accessories in 2018 fiscal year, which ended June 30.