In the right hands, the most dangerous item a prisoner can possess is a cell phone.

Last week, the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office announced the results of a state grand jury investigation that resulted in the indictment of 34 individuals from Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Among the list of those allegedly connected to the statewide methamphetamine trafficking organization are two South Carolina inmates, Robert Anthony Gracely of Broad River Correctional Institution and Nicanor Perez Rodriguez of Lee Correctional Institution, who investigators claim orchestrated the criminal operation using contraband cell phones to “direct drug deliveries, sales, payments, and other trafficking-related activities of co-conspirators who were operating outside the prison walls.”

Between September 2013 and May of this year, Gracely and Rodriguez are charged with conspiracy to traffic methamphetamine across the state, according to the state grand jury indictment. While investigators believe they have shut down this alleged drug ring, this isn’t the first time in recent months where South Carolina prisoners have used illegally obtained cell phones to lead such a criminal enterprise from behind bars.

Last November, acting United States Attorney Beth Drake announced that 15 individuals, including several South Carolina inmates, were hit with federal charges for drug trafficking. In that case, a 21-count indictment alleged that defendants conspired to distribute methamphetamine, using phones and mail to undertake drug offenses, and laundered money through the use of wire transfers, cash withdrawals, and the purchase and use of prepaid debit cards.

At the time, the Department of Justice said that the cell phones used by the inmates were often equipped with touch screens and internet access that enabled prisoners to coordinate drug transactions, confirm shipment and delivery, and transfer drug proceeds.”

“According to the indictment, five inmates capitalized on their access to cell phones to continue their criminal activities and to direct the criminal activities of nine ‘facilitators’ outside of prison,” said the Department of Justice U.S. Attorney’s Office. “Using contraband cellular telephones, the U.S. Mail, and employing a network of suppliers, distributers, and runners outside of prison, [South Carolina Department of Corrections] inmates brokered and managed the delivery and distribution of methamphetamine from California to the upstate of South Carolina and elsewhere in the state.”

These incidents come as corrections officials continue to lobby for permission to utilize cell-phone jamming technology to block unauthorized calls from inmates. Standing in their way is a 1934 federal law which states that the Federal Communications Commission can only allow federal agencies the right to block public airwaves. Earlier this year, the FCC agreed to begin efforts of streamlining the process to allow prisons to utilize technology that would allow corrections officers to pinpoint the use of illegal cell phones by inmates.

Categorized as “Contraband Interdiction Systems,” this technology enables prison officials to detect phone signals originating from within prisons. Late last year, the state Department of Corrections gained initial approval from legislators to begin working on implementing a $1.3 million cell phone detection system in four high-security prisons across South Carolina.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the number of cell phones confiscated in federal prisons increased from 1,774 in 2008 to 3,684 in 2010 — and contraband cell phones show no signs of decreasing in popularity. According to a 2017 report, the FCC found that approximately 8,700 cell phones were recovered in federal prisons between 2012 and 2014 — more than 2,000 more cases than the next most common type of contraband.

As for South Carolina’s state prisons, more than 4,100 cell phones were confiscated from inmates in 2015, according to the FCC’s report. While the numbers are staggering on both a state and national level, a closer look at the dangers associated with seizing contraband cell phones from inmates highlights the risk associated with their growing presence in prisons.

Just one day after the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office announced the indictment of the two inmates who allegedly used cell phones to lead a drug trafficking ring from behind bars, two state corrections officers at Trenton Correctional Institute in Edgefield were injured while attempting to retrieve a phone from an inmate. Occurring around midnight, the two officers found themselves in the middle of a struggle while working to gain control of the phone. It was at this point that officials say other prisoners joined in the fray, assaulting the officers. No inmates were reportedly injured in the incident, but the two officers were treated for non-life-threatening injuries.

While corrections officials continue to argue in favor of blocking contraband cell phone signals or establishing black-out areas or “quiet zones” around prisons, companies like AT&T and Verizon have opposed such plans.

“The carriers oppose the ‘quiet zone’-like proposals. AT&T opposes [the] proposal to create ‘quiet zones’ around correctional facilities in which carriers are unauthorized to provide wireless service, claiming that a quiet zone would prevent the completion of legitimate emergency calls from the correctional facility and vicinity within the quiet zone,” wrote the FCC in their assessment of proposed strategies to combat illegal cell phone use in prisons. “Even in rural areas, Verizon suggests, legitimate communications in the areas around prisons could be impacted. In opposing the idea of a quiet or exclusion zone, Verizon argues that ‘these proposals would indiscriminately prevent legitimate communications, including public safety communications from being completed both inside and outside the prison grounds.’”

So while private companies and state and federal agencies sort out the specifics of how best to address the growing use of illegal cell phones by inmates, it appears determined prisoners will continue to be able to extend their reach into the outside world — where the next crime is just a call away.

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