The Herald Bulletin

Morning Update

Breaking News

February 16, 2014

Prisoners' use of smuggled cellphones on the rise

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — They're hidden in babies' diapers, ramen noodle soup packages, footballs, soda cans and even body cavities.

Not drugs or weapons, but cellphones. They're becoming a growing problem in prisons across the country as they are used to make threats, plan escapes and for inmates to continue to make money from illegal activity even while behind bars.

"You can pick states all across the country and you'll see everything from hits being ordered on individuals to criminal enterprises being run from inside institutions with cellphones," said Michael Crews, head of Florida's Department of Corrections.

When two murderers serving life sentences escaped from Florida Panhandle prison last fall, a search of their cells turned up a cellphone used to help plan the getaway, drawing attention to the burgeoning problem. It was just one of 4,200 cellphones confiscated by prison officials last year, or 11 per day.

"The scary part is, if we found 4,200, we know that's not all of them," Crews said.

And while prison officials are trying their best to keep cellphones out, it's not such an easy task. Jamming cellphone signals is prohibited by federal law, and it costs more than $1 million each for authorized towers that control what cellphone calls can come in and out of prisons. Some prisons even have to police their own corrections officers who sometimes help inmates receive contraband.

In Texas, a death row inmate made several calls with a cellphone to state Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee. Whitmire didn't believe it when he started receiving calls from death row inmate Richard Tabler.

"He held his phone out, I guess outside his cell and there was a very distinct prison noise. He said, 'Did you hear that?' and I said, 'Yup. That's a prison,' " Whitmire said. "I said, 'How'd you get that phone?' He said, 'I paid $2,100 for it.' I said, 'How do you keep it charged?' He said, 'I have a charger.' "

The calls continued, and Whitmire had the phone investigated. The month before, Tabler used 2,800 minutes and was sharing the phone with other prisoners, Whitmire said. Tabler's mother, in Georgia, was paying the bill and collecting payments from the other prisoners' families.

Tabler asked Whitmire if he could help arrange a visit with his mother. When she arrived in Texas she was arrested for her part in the prison cellphone scheme. Tabler wasn't happy about that and made another call to Whitmire. "He said he was going to have me killed," Whitmire said.

In other cases around the country, infamous murderer Charles Manson, imprisoned in California, was found with a cellphone under his mattress, twice.

Two Indiana prisoners were convicted of using cellphones smuggled in by guards to run an operation that distributed methamphetamine, heroin and other drugs. A prisoner in Georgia was accused this year of using two cellphones to impersonate a sheriff's lieutenant and scam elderly drivers who had received red light camera tickets, getting them each to pay about $500.

In Oklahoma, a newspaper investigation found dozens of prisoners using cellphones to maintain Facebook pages. The Oklahoman found about three dozen inmates who were disciplined by prison officials and its reporters found about as many who hadn't been caught.

Florida prisoners have also been using social media with cellphones.

"We've got inmates running their own blogs and all kinds of stuff. We stop it when we catch it, but it's very difficult to police the whole Internet. We don't have Internet police on our staff," said assistant corrections secretary James Upchurch.

Those helping inmates smuggle phones into Florida prisons can be charged with a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison. In Mississippi, the penalty can be 15 years for having a cellphone in prisons.

As corrections departments keep looking for new ways to stop cellphone smuggling, prisoners are finding creative, new ways to get them in.

"You may get a prepackaged, sealed ramen noodle soup — and it's completely sealed — the weight seems to be right, but when you open it, there's a cellphone inside," said Timothy Cannon, Florida's deputy corrections secretary. "They're very, very, very creative in the way they do some of these things."

Phones have been hidden in the hollowed out centers of large stacks of legal documents. One corrections officer found two liter soda bottles that were used as floats outside a prison. When he pulled them out of a pond, bags containing more than a dozen cellphones each were found tied to them.

"We've found cellphones and drugs in babies' diapers" during visitations, Cannon said. "If they think you'd never search an infant child, that will be the next place they go to try to get it in."

Phones hidden in body cavities can't always be picked up by traditional metal detectors, and many are wrapped in electrical tape to further avoid detection.

"We have found cellphones in the private area of visitors — I'm talking females and males," said Christopher Epps, head of the Mississippi prison system and president of the American Corrections Association. He said it's not unusual to find three phones in a body cavity.

States are looking for new ways to find cellphones or to prevent their use. Epps said that includes recently installed netting held up by 50-foot poles to keep people from throwing bags over prison fences for prisoners to retrieve.

Federal law prohibits jamming cellphone signals, but Texas, Maryland, California and Mississippi installed towers at some prisons that control what cellphone traffic is allowed. Phone signals reach the tower, but only authorized numbers are then passed through.

It's not something Florida is considering because of the hefty price tag. Each system costs about $1.5 million, and with 49 major prisons, the state doesn't have the money to cover them all.

Instead, it's testing machines that detect a cellphone's magnetic fields. And like Indiana and other states, Florida is also using dogs trained to sniff out cellphones.

Still, with 100,000 prisoners in Florida, Crews knows the problem will never be completely solved, especially with the profit that can be made.

"When you're talking about that kind of money, you're going to have a lot of people who are willing to do just about anything to get them in," Crews said. "For a large portion of these inmates, it is about making a dollar."

1
Text Only
Breaking News
  • Costa Rica is demanding US explain 'Cuban Twitter'

    The Costa Rican government says it's still waiting for the Obama administration to explain why it launched the secret "Cuban Twitter" network from inside the Central American nation's borders despite warnings in 2009 that the plan could jeopardize the two countries' diplomatic relations.

    April 24, 2014

  • FDA proposes first regulations for e-cigarettes

    The federal government wants to ban sales of electronic cigarettes to minors and require approval for new products and health warning labels under regulations being proposed by the Food and Drug Administration.

    April 24, 2014

  • Singer Kenny Loggins set for Indiana GOP meeting

    Singer-songwriter Kenny Loggins is set to perform at the Indiana Republican Convention in Fort Wayne.

    April 24, 2014

  • Indiana cat missing 5 years reunited with owner

    A cat that went missing five years ago has been reunited with its owner in Indiana thanks to an implanted microchip.

    April 24, 2014

  • High court nixes $3.4M award to child porn victim

    The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected a plea to make it easier for victims of child pornography to collect money from people who view their images online, throwing out a nearly $3.4 million judgment in favor of a woman whose childhood rape has been widely seen on the Internet. Two dissenting justices said Congress should change the law to benefit victims.

    April 24, 2014

  • Son eulogizes slain officer mother as 'amazing'

    An Indianapolis police officer slain by her ex-husband, a fellow officer who then killed himself, was eulogized by her son as the "most amazing person" at her funeral Wednesday.

    April 24, 2014

  • NWS - HB0424 - Rebecca Sperry - JC 1 Survivors of violent accident, mother and baby return home from hospital The past two and a half weeks of Rebecca Sperry's life have been a harrowing series of ups and downs.

    April 23, 2014 2 Photos

  • Reservoir opponents take message to Earth Day

    Opponents of a proposed reservoir in central Indiana hope to use this weekend's Earth Day festivals to spread the word about their concerns about the $350 million dam project, which would inundate part of a state park known for its ancient earthworks.

    April 23, 2014

  • Smoke leads to crash on Indiana 13 A girl was hit by a motorcycle, but not seriously injured, after smoke from a controlled burn limited visibility on Indiana 13 Wednesday afternoon.

    April 23, 2014

  • First lady announces one-stop job site for vets

    To help veterans leaving the military as it downsizes, the government on Wednesday started a one-stop job-shopping website for them to create resumes, connect with employers and become part of a database for companies to mine.

    April 23, 2014

Featured Ads
More Resources from The Herald Bulletin
AP Video
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
Helium debate
Helium
Front page
Poll

Will you vote in the primary election on May 6?

Yes, on May 6
Yes, will vote early
No
     View Results