Contraband cellphones in prisons quickly becoming a national crisis

Photo: Sinclair Broadcast Group

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) - Cellphones are just about everywhere these days, including, it turns out, our nation’s prisons.

They’re dropped in by drones, thrown over jail walls, and even smuggled in by Corrections Officers.

And it's all illegal.

This week's "Spotlight On America" investigation found that lock-ups nationwide are flooded with contraband phones. They're being used to plot escapes, run criminal networks outside prison walls, and call in hits.

Capt. Robert Johnson, a former South Carolina Corrections Officer, knows the dangers all too well. An inmate called in a hit on him in 2010.

"I heard a loud boom as my door was kicked in, Johnson said. I knew right then this is the hit."

He was shot inside his home, in front of his wife, six times. He's had 24 surgeries since then.

"When you have inmates having access to unmonitored cellphones, you are going to have problems, he said."

For years, Capt. Johnson's job was to hunt through inmate's cells for phones. We had a chance to see what that looks like at a maximum security prison in Tennessee where we were given rare access.

Dozens of officers and highly-trained dogs combed through the inmate's belongings and common areas. Within minutes, they found a charger in the garbage can.

They look everywhere inside an inmate's cell: underneath the sink, behind the toilet, inside the TV and light fixtures. Today's technology means phones are easier to conceal than ever.

South Carolina Prison officials understand the threat better than most. Cell phones were blamed for orchestrating the deadliest prison riot in 25 years there in the spring of 2018.

It put South Carolina prison officials on a war-footing.

50-foot nets are being installed around every state prison, drone detection surveillance teams are providing officials with eyes in the sky, and military veterans are flying them.

There are also efforts underway to go even further than that: to block cell signals in prisons altogether. "I see the day coming when cell phones will only be used by the inmates to hit each other with it because they won’t be able to call, Capt. Johnson said."

Until then, he warns that inmates with smuggled phones will continue to pose a threat nationwide, even from behind bars.

Cellphone blocking technologies are actively being tested in several states and the rest of the prison system is watching closely.

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