Crackdown on prisoner cell phones proves difficult

Print More

Mississippi prisons officials continue to wage an uphill battle to rid the corrections system of thousands of illegal cell phones in the hands of inmates.

In the past five years, more than 9 million texts and attempted transmissions have been intercepted from inmate cell phones at two state prisons, officials say.

“There’s got to be staff involvement,” says Marshall L. Fisher, commissioner of the state Department of Corrections, who also blames vendors and even people who throw the cell phones over security fences.

He termed the phones’ use by prisoners “a constant problem” afflicting correction facilities nationwide.

Earlier this year, a federal conspiracy case trial revealed that Mississippi prison inmates orchestrated murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, assault, money laundering, drug distribution and firearms trafficking all via illegal cell phones.

Testimony pointed to the wider problem within Mississippi’s 19,400 inmate population: Last year, more than 3,000 “contraband” phones were recovered with little doubt prison staff helps get them inside facilities, as Fisher said.

Yet MDOC officials can only wonder how many more of these devices are in prisoners’ hands, used for communication and financial transactions.

“Coast to coast, everybody’s struggling with this problem,” said Fisher.

Cell phones are prohibited in all state and federal prisons in the U.S., sometimes even for top corrections officials.

Marshall L. Fisher, MDOC commissioner

MDOC

Marshall L. Fisher, MDOC commissioner

In April, Gov. Phil Bryant joined nine other governors asking the Federal Communications Commission for changes in how it handles illegal cell phones in prisons.

Other governors signing with Bryant were from South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah.

“The FCC should act to streamline regulatory review processes and allow states to implement cost-efficient technology in prisons, where the installation of such technology will not sacrifice the safety of the general public,” the governors wrote in the letter sent to the FCC.

A spokesman for the FCC did not respond to Mississippi Today’s inquiry about progress on the governors’ request. MDOC spokesman Grace S. Fisher said she isn’t aware of any FCC response to her agency.

The most consistent solution, officials say, is to jam the cellular signal inside correctional facilities so no one can use the devices while inside.

However, Sean Smith, chief of Mississippi corrections investigations, said jamming phones is illegal and impractical.

“I’m inside the unit, and sometimes I need to make a call,” he said.

Smith also said a 1934 law allows only federal agencies to jam public airwaves. And cellphone companies argue that the jamming methods suggested by the states could interfere with emergency communications and other legal cellphone use.

K-9 units at Marshall County Correctional Facility in Holly Springs units are now used to detect cell phones in addition to other contraband.

2014 AP file photograph

K-9 units at Marshall County Correctional Facility in Holly Springs units are now used to detect cell phones in addition to other contraband.

While cell phone use by state prisoners isn’t new, its use for illegal purposes came to light a few months ago during a federal trial in Oxford accusing members of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood of murder, assault and racketeering.

Through multiple phone conversations, originating inside state prisons, the trial jury heard inmates plot physical violence against others, drug trafficking and other crimes.

Defendant Stephen Hubanks, who pleaded guilty to charges against him, testified that he and Aryan Brotherhood members spoke regularly via cell phones.

“We buy them, some are brought in by officers,” he testified, saying he and the regional Aryan Brotherhood leadership spoke at least twice a week and often daily.

He and other co-defendant brotherhood members told jurors how they used cell phones like computers to move money around, pay bills and make other transactions.

“Money is transferred by Western Union or a Green Dot money pack bought lots of places as a pre-paid debit card,” Hubanks noted, saying that’s how he and other members paid for drugs, lawyers, house notes and help to families.

“You have the card … to buy money packs, you call the number for your account number, dial in the number off the card and money pack, and money would go into your account,” he said.

Fisher says it’s easy to see why inmates want cell phones: “It’s a power thing to have a cell phone.”

The inmates with phones often use them as devices of control over inmates who don’t have phones, Fisher said.

As the former director of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, he said that agency regularly conducts wiretaps into prison conversations while investigating criminal activity, he said.

“We can’t give up the details of how we monitor cell phone activity, but we regularly search staff, conduct searches on offenders and put netting on our security fences,” Fisher said.

Five years ago, Mississippi introduced a call detection system then hailed as a possible solution to harnessing the illegal phone communication. Tested in other states, too, the managed access system establishes a network around a prison to detect every call and text. Callers using cell phones not on an approved list received a message saying their device was illegal and would no longer function.

The detection system is still in use at Parchman and South Mississippi Correctional Institution in Greene County.

As far back as six years ago, for a six-month period, MDOC intercepted 643,388 calls and texts going in and out of the 3,000-inmate state penitentiary at Parchman in the Mississippi Delta.

Smith said deterring cell phone possession and usage is a “constant battle” at the 30 facilities operated by MDOC.

Fisher said budget pressures make for challenges systemwide, especially with low-paid staff, which he describes as the lowest paid in the nation. He suggested low pay makes them vulnerable to bribes by inmates in need of favors.

“But we’re going to do the best we can with what we’ve got,” he added.

Smith and his team are working on a new approach to disrupt inmate cell phone transmissions.

Fisher is optimistic that answers are on the horizon.

“Technology has changed drastically over the past 10-20 years,” he said. “We think we’re on the cusp of technology to maybe shut down signals while allowing us to use ours.”

He said new military technology allowing soldiers to “jam the bad guys” will trickle down for civilian use.

The public needs to know, Smith said, that MDOC is “doing all we can every day to try to combat” illegal communications by inmates.

The FCC says ending illegal cell phone usage by prisoners is a top priority, noting contraband cell phones have been used by inmates to arrange the murder of witnesses and public safety officers, traffic in drugs and manage criminal enterprises.

“It’s a safety issue,” he said. “They’re not just calling Mother.”

* * *

WHAT DO INMATES TALK ABOUT?

Testimony presented by federal prosecutors during an April 2016 trial in Oxford made public extensive illegal cell phone conversations by state inmates. Here is an excerpt from just one of those calls between defendant Frank “State Raised” Owens Jr. and another inmate identified as Marty Miller.

OWENS: I want to find out what’s goin’ on about this f—–‘, uh, this, uh, detective comin’ to him, askin’ him about a goddamn, uh, uh, paid hit we’ve got on Eric Parker.

MILLER: I will get to the bottom of that. He’s livin’ out there in Ellisville with his uncle at some chicken houses, he ain’t got no ride, and as soon as he gets a ride he’s gettin’ to me. Ah, he want – he would like to come to church (a gang meeting) just to socialize with us even if he can’t go in there an’ be part of it, which I ain’t got no corn about that, that everybody else can see what kinda dude he is too.

OWENS: Uh, I’d say I want to find out what’s up with this detective an’ all that callin’ him about some kinda hit on Eric Parker, you know?

MILLER: Now why didn’t he say anythin’ to me about that? Maybe because he didn’t want to on the phone. I told him he may as well call me every day, you know what I’m sayin’? Just to see if it’s rainin’ at my house, you know what I mean? Or whatever.

(* Excepts from wire-tap recordings associated with the prosecution of white supremacist gang members in 2016.)