South Carolina’s prisons agency says it is beefing up security and asking for the public’s help in an effort to slow down a near-epidemic of illegal cell phones being smuggled into its facilities.
Officials at the Department of Corrections (SCDC) say the problem has continued to grow in state prisons ever since one inmate used a smuggled phone to order a hit on a guard in 2010. Since then, the Lowcountry blog “Charleston Thug Life” has documented over 150 inmates who it says have created Facebook or Twitter accounts while behind bars. And the issue came to a head in March, when a phone video surfaced of about a half-dozen inmates rapping while inside their cell.
State legislators passed a law in 2012 that banned inmates from creating social media accounts to harass or intimidate their former victims. The penalty is a $500 fine or up to 30 additional days in jail. The final version was much weaker than originally proposed by State Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, who had wanted to make it illegal for an inmate to have an account at all. However, other lawmakers worried the language would have criminalized pages created by family members.
Back then, the problem was only a few dozen inmates with Facebook pages. Now it has grown to hundreds. Adding to the problem is that inmates rarely use their birth names for their accounts, making it harder for law enforcement to detect them.
“We are overwhelmed here sometimes,” Corrections Department director Bryan Stirling admitted.
Now he is asking for the public’s help. A new page on the agency’s website allows anyone who spots a suspected inmate’s account to report it. The watchdog can also include a link to the specific profile and can submit the information anonymously. Stirling said the rap video revealed security problems at Kershaw Correctional, where it was filmed.
“It shouldn’t happen,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “We obviously need to be more vigilant in our duties of checking cells and walking the floor. But we also need to be more vigilant in finding these cell phones before those videos can be made.” He said eight inmates appearing in the video have been disciplined — but several others have not been identified.
Stirling said the agency is taking a “multi-tiered” approach that emphasizes increased security at the Corrections Department’s highest level prisons to catch contraband, while also relying more on crime blogs and the public for tips on finding those inmates who do have phones.
Along with an increased presence online, he said the agency is buying new infrared scanning equipment and building guard towers to stop smugglers. At most prisons, guards patrol the outer fences to search for “throwovers,” when smugglers on the outside toss contraband over prison walls. Gov. Nikki Haley and state legislators have agreed to fund new towers at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville and Lieber Correctional near Ridgeville (both maximum-security facilities).
They’re even watching the prison food supply. Stirling said contraband has been turning up in food trucks arriving at the prisons. Suspicion has fallen on inmates who work at the main distribution warehouse in Columbia. “It’s a constant battle and sometimes we don’t catch everything,” he said. “We’ve got one institution that will go through and open up everything. Sometimes if it’s a block of cheese… they’ll cut it into fours and find cell phones in the middle.”
Stirling said his office is reviewing whether changes need to be made in who handles prisons’ food supply.
Finally, he said Corrections is examining ways to block phones from functioning inside prisons. The agency has spent four years unsuccessfully seeking FCC approval to jam cell signals, but the federal agency has sided with providers who worry it will affect nearby homes and businesses outside the prison walls. Other states like Texas and Georgia are using “managed access” systems that only allow calls from authorized cell phone numbers. However, Stirling said those systems are expensive and cannot stop inmates from texting or accessing the internet.