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Posted on Sun, Jul. 10, 2005

Inmates smuggling cell phones

In N.C. and elsewhere, prisons work to prevent inmates from smuggling the new contraband


Staff Writer

Prisoners have long found ways of smuggling weapons, drugs or smutty magazines into their cells. But now they're after new contraband: cell phones.

In North Carolina, prison officials say they've found the phones tucked into dirty laundry, buried in a mulch pile and thrown over the fence by an inmate's girlfriend.

In Florida, a Nokia cell phone, five pieces of candy, cigarettes and a lighter were reportedly tucked into a football caught in the razor wire atop a jail wall. And Texas officials reportedly pulled a phone out of a jar of salad dressing.

Inmates are "pretty astute as to getting it to work for them," said Robert Harden, Anson Correctional Center's superintendent. "They've constantly got 24 hours a day to think about how to do this."

In a handful of states -- Maryland, Arizona, California and New Jersey -- prison officials are recovering more illegal cell phones than drugs, weapons or any other contraband, according to an April report in Corrections Professional magazine.

They aren't yet that prolific in North Carolina, but they're becoming more popular.

The first documented cell phone found in the state was reportedly at the Wilkes Correctional Center in 1996, according to N.C. records. Since then the numbers have increased steadily, with officials statewide confiscating more than 90 phones so far.

And five phones have shown up in the high-security Central Prison in Raleigh, where inmates are allowed to make only one collect call a year.

The S.C. Department of Corrections could not provide numbers about contraband phones. But the Associated Press reported that officials found more than two dozen cell phones during a search in October at the Evans Correctional Institution in Marlboro County. The prison was put into lockdown for weeks.

The cell phones create a security threat, prison officials say, because guards can't monitor the calls as they can with prison-sanctioned collect ones.

It's likely, they say, that some inmates use the illegal phones solely to check in with mom, avoid pricey collect calls or stoke romantic flames.

But prison officials say they worry inmates could also use the forbidden phones to coordinate drug sales, order killings or intimidate witnesses.

"We have to look at it as a worst-case scenario," said Ron Tarlton, the Union (N.C.) Correctional Center's assistant superintendent. "That it could be used in an escape attempt."

Last November, N.C. prison officials created a new penalty for inmates found with cell phones or digital devices such as recorders. It's now classified among the most serious infractions. Inmates can get two months in segregation.

N.C. prison officials have already penalized inmates in 12 cases, said spokesman Keith Acree.

But how are the prisoners getting cell phones in the first place? The phones are illegal for anyone -- visitors, guards, staff or inmates -- to carry into most prisons.

Visitors and inmates are searched before they enter. Prison officials couldn't detail how many employees have been disciplined for smuggling them into N.C. prisons, but Acree said the department has fired a few for bringing in phones.

And in South Carolina, a 19-year-old Kershaw Correctional Institution officer was arrested in May after he was accused of smuggling marijuana and a cell phone into the prison.

"We will continue to have the problem until we can render the cell phone useless in prison," said John Blalock, chief of security for the N.C. Department of Correction's division of prisons.

But it's illegal to jam cell phone signals in prisons, he said. So they are looking at other alternatives that the state can legally try and afford.

In the meantime, N.C. prison officials have already found 20 phones so far this year, up from about 14 at the same time last year.

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