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Charleston Jail Arrests Show Cellphones a Game-Changer in Inmate Smuggling

Updated: May 16, 2018

The Post and Courier

The recent arrests of three inmates accused along with two of their girlfriends of sneaking contraband into the Cannon Detention Center showed smuggling continues to be a problem for jails despite screening visitors, packages and mail.

In the case of the five charged with distributing narcotics and attempting to furnish inmates with contraband, authorities say the alleged smuggling ring stuffed cellphones and drugs into large saline bottles destined for the county jail as medical supplies. It was uncovered after the bomb squad examined one of the packages that had aroused suspicion after being X-rayed, according to jail officials.

Corrections officials acknowledge that smuggling is a larger problem at prisons than county jails, mostly because state inmates are serving longer sentences and have more time and incentive to plot out elaborate schemes.

But cellphones, a relatively recent entry into the daily cat-and-mouse game between guards and inmates, present a difficult new challenge, officials say.

"Contraband has always been a problem, and it will always be a problem," said Jon Ozmint, former director of the S.C. Department of Corrections. "What cellphones did was open up a new avenue and a new pipeline for the delivery of contraband. They allow inmates to continue their criminal enterprises or find new ways to break the law from the inside."

A cheap prepaid phone, while commonplace on the street, gives inmates the ability to intimidate witnesses and rivals; arrange for contraband to be tossed over jail fences; and steal identities and run scams.

Cellphone pictures and videos on Facebook and other social media of South Carolina inmates posing in their cells, chatting with friends and even filming a rap video behind prison walls are reminders that corrections officials aren't winning the war.

Ozmint and others have argued that Federal Communications Commission regulations preventing correctional facilities from jamming cellphone signals are largely to blame for the smuggling and criminal activity behind bars, including the shooting of former state Corrections Capt. Robert Johnson.

Johnson, a 16-year Corrections veteran, was known for sniffing out illegal cellphones, drugs and other contraband smuggled behind prison walls. In March 2010, authorities said, a prisoner at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville reportedly used a smuggled cellphone to order a hit on Johnson. A gunman confronted Johnson at his home, firing six rounds into Johnson's chest and stomach in front of his wife. Johnson survived but was forced into an early retirement as a result of the shooting.

In 2009, while Ozmint was director, South Carolina led more than 30 state corrections departments in a national push to persuade the FCC to allow for the jamming of cellphone signals in prisons. He recently expressed frustration at having made little headway in the effort in the years since.

"We could be much further along with the solution if the FCC would get on board," he said. "We've got an FCC that's more concerned with trying to regulate the Internet than they are with making the public safer."

The FCC opposes jamming cellphone signals in prisons and jails because it would interfere with signals in surrounding areas, including emergency calls, according to a 2011 blog post on an agency website.

"The use of jammers in prisons to stop the use of contraband cellphones by inmates could interfere with police, fire and emergency medical communications," the FCC said in its post. "Already, there has been increased FCC enforcement against illegal jammers that have interfered with public safety communications and GPS signals. ... Moreover, jammers could disrupt or prevent authorized calls, including 911 calls, from civilians living, working and travelling in proximity to a prison using jammers."

An alternative to jamming cellphone signal called "managed access" is being looked at by state prisons and county jails, according to Corrections Department spokeswoman Stephanie Givens. Theoretically, it would allowed the suppressing of targeted cellphone signals within a detention facility while not blocking others.

"The problem is that the technology is fairly new, it's fairly expensive and it's all changing so quickly. It could cost millions to install and hundreds of thousands to maintain per facility," Givens said.

Antonio McNeil, 21, and Kadrin Singleton, 22, two of the three inmates accused of being part of the smuggling ring at the Charleston County jail, were each facing murder and attempted murder charges when they allegedly used cellphones to communicate with at least three people outside the jail to orchestrating the scheme, authorities say.

That's not the typical way inmates try to get contraband, such as drugs, cellphones, tobacco and other illegal or prohibited items into jail, some local officials say.

"If contraband does come in, it usually is thrown over our fence line where the inmate will try to 'fish' the items from within," said Hill-Finklea Detention Center Administrator Keith Novak.

Darlington County jail officials, while not taking an if-you-can-beat-'em-join-'em approach, are looking for ways to preempt smuggling and make a profit.

With tobacco banned, the county jail has started selling electronic cigarettes, a battery-powered vaporizer, which simulates tobacco smoking and contains nicotine. So far, the county has made a profit of nearly $15,000 on the sales, which goes toward the purchase of blankets and toiletry items, saving taxpayers money, according to the jail's administrator Mitch Stanley.

"They're selling like wildfire and the inmates love them," Stanley said. The e-cigarettes, which are specifically designed for inmate populations, come in various colors as to easily differentiate them from the real thing.

Stanley said he's seen the amount of contraband entering his jail decrease by nearly 75 percent since they began selling the e-cigarettes.

Advances in technology hold the potential to combat smuggling in unprecedented ways, Ozmint predicts.

Twenty years from now, "snail mail" that offenders previously used to hide illicit materials may not be allowed at prisons, he said.

Inmates, perhaps, could be issued a tablet upon entrance, subjecting all emails and other lines of communication with the outside world to strict monitoring. They could even use the devices to video chat with family, limiting the need for visitors to arrive at the jail in person, he said.

"It doesn't matter what people want, this is where we are going. The smart detention centers are going to get on board, and everyone else is going to follow whether they want to or not," Ozmint said.

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