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SC prisons battle wave of social media posts, cell phone use by inmates

Stirling
Stirling gmelendez@thestate.com

So far this year, 66 state inmates have been disciplined for creating or assisting on social media sites, despite a ban on cell phones inside prisons and a lack of inmate access to computers.

Those numbers are on track to slightly surpass last year’s numbers of 131 disciplinary actions but are down from a peak of 218 in 2014, according to postings by the state Department of Corrections.

Prison officials consider such access a serious issue because inmates can engage in criminal activity and because they use smuggled cell phones to post to the web.

“I think that corrections officials across the country have been very vocal about the issue of contraband cell phones and social media,” said Stephanie Givens, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections. “I think it’s something we’re constantly having to play catch up to.”

Sen. Mike Fair, a Greenville Republican who chairs the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee, said he believes South Carolina’s efforts at combating social media access is working. But he said the problem is pervasive.

“We know some of the inmates will seek any means at all to do business on the outside or have business brought in,” he said. “Some of them are pretty smart. They can encrypt and use codes and stuff like that to communicate.”

Sen. Greg Hembree, an Horry County Republican and a former prosecutor, said while he was not aware of the numbers of disciplinary cases involving social media, the problem concerns him.

“It concerns me greatly that they have access to the Internet,” he said. “It’s pretty scary.”

It is a problem authorities have battled for years. While Facebook and social media are relatively new, the use of smuggled cell phones is not.

Bryan Stirling, the director of South Carolina’s prison system, told a Federal Communications Commission’s field hearing last month that the system has used every tool at its disposal to try and catch cell phones but he believes only a fraction of the devices are intercepted.

“We continue to lose the war on contraband,” he said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “K-9 detection, scheduled disruptions, frisk searches, pat downs, X-ray machines and metal detectors, boss chairs, vehicle searches, stationary and roving perimeter posts and magnetic static detectors fail to even put a dent in the massive wave of telecommunications devices that infiltrate our institutions.”

He said the effort to stop the smuggling becomes more “dangerous by the day because money talks and the inmates will stop at nothing to ensure their prison economy thrives.”

Smuggled cell phones in a prison, he said, are like a weapon, “just as lethal as a prison-made shank.”

He pointed to the case of Capt. Robert Johnson, whose success at intercepting contraband at Lee Correctional Institution near Bishopville led to him being shot multiple times – a hit officials believe was orchestrated using a smuggled cell phone.

Johnson testified that a contract on his life was ordered by imprisoned gang members, who used a smuggled cell phone to contact a gang member on the outside and order the hit.

He said it came early one morning after the gang member broke down the door to his house, yelled “police” and then shot him six times at point blank range. Johnson survived but only after 22 surgeries in multiple hospitals.

“A contraband cell phone has caused my family and I more pain than we have ever experienced,” he said. “I am here to tell you that one cell phone is deadlier than six bullets.”

Johnson and Stirling, as well as Gov. Nikki Haley, pleaded with the FCC to allow the prison system to block cell signals inside prisons, a request that has gone unheeded for years.

Stirling said without that simple remedy, prison officials are fighting a losing battle. He said they have even intercepted drones flying in contraband, including cell phones, though there are many more “throwovers” in which someone on the outside tosses a cell phone over a prison fence.

K-9 detection, scheduled disruptions, frisk searches, pat downs, X-ray machines and metal detectors, boss chairs, vehicle searches, stationary and roving perimeter posts and magnetic static detectors fail to even put a dent in the massive wave of telecommunications devices that infiltrate our institutions.

Bryan Stirling, director of South Carolina’s prison system

While state officials do not know how much cell activity is generated inside prisons, they have an idea by looking at other states. Stirling said when Mississippi installed technology in 2010 to intercept cell calls and texts inside its oldest prison in 2010, it captured 9.2 million texts and calls.

With so many cell phones inside prisons, there is little wonder that inmates have sometimes been brazen about using them, not just to update Facebook pages or to connect with family but for entertainment.

In 2014, a group of inmates used a smuggle cell phone to make a rap video from inside a prison cell and uploaded it to WorldStarHipeHop.com, It was titled “South Carolina Inmates Film 1st Ever Music Video in Prison!”

The prison system convicted seven inmates of various offenses related to the video, including creating or assisting in social media and punished them with penalties that included years in solitary.

Givens said the inmates’ harsh punishment was not just because they made a video but because they were considered a security threat with ties to a gang.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, last year reported that South Carolina prison authorities had been punishing inmates with years of solitary for posting to social media.

But that has changed, Givens said.

She said when Stirling revised the agency’s policy on solitary confinements early last year, lengthy sanctions inside solitary were ended. Today, she said, none of the seven inmates punished for the video remain in solitary. In fact, she said, a step-down review has cut the population of inmates in solitary in half.

Still, many inmates caught using social media receive time in solitary, usually 20-60 days, in addition to lost good behavior time off their sentences and lost canteen, television, phone and visitation privileges, according to a review of disciplinary cases by The Greenville News.

On Feb. 21, prison officials at Perry Correctional Institution convicted James Bernard Williams, serving 11 years on a drug charge, of creating or assisting with social media, as well as possessing or attempting to possess a cell phone. He had been charged three previous times with cell phone offenses and twice prior to that with contraband offenses, according to prison records.

For the social media conviction, he was sentenced to solitary for 60 days, as well as loss of phone, visitation and canteen privileges for 240 days (eight months).

Chevelle Graham, serving a life sentence for murder at the prison where Johnson worked, was convicted last month of social media and cell phone offenses. He had been convicted previously of cell phone offenses five times stretching back to 2010, prison records show.

His penalty for both offenses was a loss of canteen, visitation and phone privileges for 190 days and a loss of television privileges for a year.

One of the biggest tools prison officials use to catch inmates posting on social media is tips from the public. The agency on its website asks for tips on inmates using phones or posting to social media.

From May 1, 2015 to April 30, agency received 687 tips through the agency’s website portal about inmates use of phones or social media, Givens said.

Fair last year introduced a bill to make it unlawful to possess or introduce a “telecommunications device” in prisons or jails but the bill did not move out of his committee.

Stirling said his officers found more than 4,100 cell phones or accessories in prisons last year. But he suspects far more make it through, some even with the help of prison staff.

He said rural states such as South Carolina should be allowed to using jamming technology to combat smuggled cell phones.

“Captain Johnson, the men and women in South Carolina who risk their lives on a daily basis in service to their state deserve nothing less than additional research, testing and productive discussion about detection and jamming technology in jails and prisons,” he testified. “The safety of the public and lives of our officers depend on it.”

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