SPARTANBURG, SC (WSPA) – Many people almost always carry their cell phones with them wherever they go. But, for some people such as inmates in our state prisons, it’s a lifeline, and they’ll go through lengths just to make sure they get and keep them.
However, cell phones in the hands of inmates are causing problems, and they are one of the highest items of contraband taken away in prisons.
The investigation began after an inmate inside Perry Correctional called 7News after an officer was beaten and held hostage at the prison back in April.
Retired Captain Robert Johnson knows the dangers of a contraband cell phone all too well. He was a contraband officer at Lee Correctional in the Midlands where he worked for 15 years.
“I was determined to get it,” Johnson said. “If I didn’t find it today, I would turn around and come back tomorrow…I was upsetting the economy at the prison.”
He gained the nickname “hound dog” from inmates. He became notorious for finding prison contraband, especially cell phones.
“We found cell phones everywhere,” Johnson said. “We found them in special cans, in colostomy bags.”
Johnson estimates he cost inmates about $50,000 with everything he seized.
He believes that is what ultimately caused an inmate to use a cellphone to order a hit on his life.
He remembers the morning in March 2010 vividly. He said he was getting ready for work the day before his birthday.
“I heard a boom, and my front door was kicked in,” Johnson said.
He said he immediately recognized the man in his house as Sean Echols, a former inmate who had recently gotten parole.
“I’ve never looked up a 38 bullet,” Johnson said. “They travel at 755 feet per second, and he hit me six times.”
A couple years ago, Echols pled guilty to shooting Johnson, hitting him in the stomach and chest. The bullets ripped through his liver, lungs, and diaphragm.
“It’s a weird thing to look down at your stomach and you see this green stuff, a green pea from last night’s dinner, coming out because that’s how damaged my intestines were.”
The Department of Corrections believes another inmate at Lee Correctional used a cell phone to contact Echols to carry out the hit on Johnson, paying him $6000.
Johnson said the inmate who he believes hired the hit was moved to Perry Correctional after Echols trial. That inmate is set to be released in 2022.
Cell phones continue to be one of the leading types of contraband seized in South Carolina prisons.
Last year, more than 1600 phones were taken from inmates, up several hundred from the year before. It’s a battle the director of the Department of Corrections said is constant.
“One of the most dangerous times an officer can have is when they try to take a cell phone away from an inmate because it’s their lifeline,” said South Carolina Department of Corrections Director, Bryan Stirling.
The DOC said during the next legislative session they are going directly to lawmakers to push for stricter punishments for people who bring these cellphones to inmates.
“They had a dead cat that they put cell phones in and threw it over the fence,” Stirling said. “The inmate would go pick the cat up as part of the maintenance.”
Prison officials said throwovers are the most common ways people get contraband into prisons. People also use drones, delivery trucks and food. Even some officers get in on the lucrative cell phone business since phones go for upwards of $500.
“It’s a war,” Stirling said.
Prisons use a rover to travel around prison perimeters to catch people illegally trying to throw items over the fence.
Governor Nikki Haley also put money in the budget for prisons to build towers, so guards can get a better look at the property.
Officers check everyone and everything that comes into the prison and use a device that detects metal phone pieces.
“Prisons were designed to keep people in and not keep people out or keep things out, to a certain extent, now we’re having to look outwards,” Stirling said.
Stirling said it’s also difficult to monitor because there is a staffing problem, and all of those steps take manpower.
He said there is a simple fix if the Federal Communications Commission would allow blocked phone call.
It’s currently illegal based on a 1934 law that allows the FCC to block calls only to federal agencies but not state or local.
Cell phone companies are against the blockage because they said there can be bleed over, and it would affect people living nearby prisons.
Stirling said there is another option.
“There’s a thing called managed access which we can use,” Stirling said. “Managed access would allow some phone calls to go through, but not others.”
That would cost taxpayers around $10 million a year.
“There’s a lot of state resources that go into this that are needless,” Stirling said. “If we were able to block these calls, a cell phone would be as good as a paperweight.”
Of course, not everyone is on board.
Former inmate Malik Route, who was released in February from a Level One Institution in Columbia after serving a 10 year sentence for being convicted of criminal conspiracy, racked up four phone charges between 2008 and 2013. He lost 18 months of good time and spent between $4000 and $5000 on cell phones.
Route, who has started a car washing business, said most inmates use cell phones as a more reliable way to talk to their families.
“You been on the phone two minutes, then all of a sudden the system hangs up the call,” Route said. “That’s a call you’ve lost.”
He said cell phones also create less of a financial problem for their loved ones.
“She’s taking care of three or four kids, then she has to worry about putting money on the phone for him, to pay for a way for him to communicate, then it’s putting a burden on her,” Route said.
Currently, collect calls in South Carolina prisons are 11 cents per minute, and pre-paid calls are nine cents a minute.
When asked what about inmates who use the cell phone to harass victims’ families or continue criminal ways, he said that would happen anyway, even without cell phones.
“If you go back 25 years, crimes were still being committed inside the department of corrections and outside,” Route said.
While most inmates do just use the phone to talk to family, which the Director agrees is important to keep that connection; there is still a big problem.
“These bad apples can create some pretty bad havoc for people on the outside, so we need to watch everyone,” Stirling said.
The State Law Enforcement Division said the investigation is still ongoing for Johnson’s case, and agents would not elaborate further.
In May, Governor Nikki Haley and nine other republican governors across the country wrote a letter to the FCC asking them to re-evaluate their regulations on cell phone contraband.
Robert Johnson and his wife also go on three to four trips a year speaking at different events in order to get the law changed to allow state prisons to block cell phone signals.
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