To the outside world, cellphones are just part of life. But inside prison walls, they’re invaluable — used to plot escapes, threaten innocent people and even commit murder beyond the bars.
“It’s a constant security issue were facing on a daily basis,” said Kenneth Lassiter, deputy director for operations for the North Carolina prison system.
It’s not weapons, it’s not drugs — its cellphones.
“It’s number one,” Lassiter said. “Cellphones are our number one threat, and we have to combat it every single day.”
In a place where communication is luxury, a simple cellphone can be very dangerous. And they’re being smuggled in by the hundreds.
“One cellphone is too many cellphones,” Lassiter emphasized.
In 2005 only about 30 or so phones were confiscated in prisons across the state, but by 2012 that number jumped up to more than 850.
Here’s a breakdown:
- 2005 – 33
- 2006 – 90
- 2007 – 128
- 2008 – 304
- 2009 – 449
- 2010 – 634
- 2011 – 678
- 2012 – 863
- 2013 – 747
And those are only the ones the prison system knows about.
Getting past security
One of the common ways cellphones are smuggled into prison is people simply throw them over the walls, which means guards have to search yards daily to make sure those phones don’t end up inside.
The Department of Corrections has started using perimeter fences at some prisons, which is a separate fence surrounding the regular fence. That way if someone were to throw an object over, it would land in a controlled environment.
“It’s very difficult to try and figure out … why they want a cell phone, what they’re doing with it and how they’re getting it through our security that we have in place,” Lassiter explained.
The state has also invested in additional technology to monitor visitors before they even enter the prison. Special metal detectors pick up the specific metals in cellphones and alert security if the visitor is trying to sneak one in to the corrections facility.
But it’s not only visitors that are helping bring the phones inside.
“Sometimes they’re able to corrupt our staff,” Lassiter said. “We have to figure out a way to train our staff — educate our staff — and compensate our staff so that they can’t be corrupt by inmates.”
Once the phone’s inside, it’s a game of hide and seek.
“The inmate has a bunk, pillow, clothing, hygiene items, reading material — and anywhere they have property, they can store a cellphone,” Lassiter explained.
A prisoner’s perspective
WNCN Investigates dug through more than 40,000 inmate records to find prisoners who have had infractions for having a cellphone.
Once we compiled a list, we sent it to prison administration requesting interviews. But once they found out what we were asking prisoners about, they wouldn’t let us to talk to any inmates.
You don’t have to look back very far to see how big of a problem cellphones are.
Last year, investigators say Kevin Melton, who is serving a life sentence, orchestrated a kidnapping and attempted murder from his jail cell at the Polk Correctional Institution using a smuggled cellphone.
The victim was Frank Janssen, the father of Colleen Janssen, a Wake County assistant district attorney who put Melton behind bars.
Authorities say the kidnappers in early April 2014 held the 63-year-old Janssen in an Atlanta apartment, tormenting his family with text messages threatening to cut him into pieces if police were called or their demands weren’t met.
It was determined that the suspects intended to kidnap Colleen Janssen, but they went to the wrong address and took her father from his Wake Forest home.
Days later, the FBI was able to find and rescue Janssen in Georgia, but not all cases end that way. Lassiter said the prison systems is trying to find ways to stop it.
A pricey solution
“We’re looking at every bit of technology out there currently — the best practices, what has worked in other states, and trying to figure out what is best for our system,” Lassiter said.
Cellphone jammers are illegal and a cell tower monitoring system for every prison across the state would cost millions to install and maintain.
The question now is the price the state is willing to pay to keep cellphones out of cell blocks.
“This is something we have to do. If we could start at our close-custody facilities first then work our way down, I think we’d be doing the citizens a great justice,” Lassiter said.
He said he thinks cellphone control technology will be installed within the next five years, but the prison system is waiting for funding to make it happen.
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