SC

Contraband Prison Phones, Corrupt Public Officials: A Recipe For Disaster

South Carolina officials announce the latest crackdown … focus on the broader danger.

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South Carolina prosecutorial and law enforcement leaders joined with state prison officials this week to announce numerous arrests linked to multiple investigations of criminal enterprises operating from behind bars.

But that wasn’t actually the point of this pre-holiday press conference.

Its real focus? Exposing the forces driving these suddenly ubiquitous, increasingly dangerous criminal enterprises: Contraband cell phones and corrupt public servants – and escalating calls for crackdowns on both.

“The combination of public corruption and contraband cell phones has contributed to violent crimes, drug trafficking, child sex crimes and other crimes being committed against our citizens,” S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson said. “These investigations are part of our ongoing efforts to say ‘no more.'”

Wilson is one of many elected officials in South Carolina who have been pushing the federal government to amend its code of laws to allow states to jam cell phone signals at prisons and detention centers.

At this week’s news conference, Wilson slammed the feds for their ongoing failure on this front.

“People in the federal government need to get off their butts,” he said.

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Our media outlet has focused on this issue extensively in years past … not always landing on the right side of the debate, either. For years, I opposed jamming cell phones around Palmetto State prisons – until I realized purported public safety objections voiced by wireless providers paled in comparison to the legitimate public safety threat posed by violent inmates with access to these devices.

Speaking of that threat, leaders detailed it in all its horror this week – revealing that a prison cell phone had been used to elicit child porn (a.k.a. child sex exploitation material) involving a three-year-old girl in one of the investigations.

Lead statewide grand jury prosecutor Creighton Waters made it clear his office would be seeking the maximum punishment of life without parole against the defendant in that case.

“We are coming hard against that individual,” Waters said.

All told, nine defendants were charged with 57 counts in connection with three separate investigations. In each case, defendants inside state correctional facilities conspired with individuals outside of the prison system – and often with corrupt S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC) employees – to facilitate all manner of criminal activity.

Obviously, this is not the first time criminal charges have been brought in connection with illegal schemes being run from behind bars (see here and here). But as Waters pointed out, “this time it’s different.”

“This time we have a child victimized,” he said.

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In addition to seeking life without parole for one of the inmates charged in connection with that investigation – Jacob Nathaniel Lance – prosecutors also charged a relative of the underage victim. That relative – Abbygale Alexandria El-Dier – is facing multiple counts including first degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor, sexual exploitation of a minor and conspiracy. She and Lance were both denied bond by S.C. circuit court judge Jocelyn Newman.

One SCDC employee – a kitchen worker at Lee Correctional Institution – also allegedly “participated in the contraband trade and (was) in possession of child sexual abuse material,” according to the attorney general’s release.

Our outlet previously reported on the arrest of this employee – and one of his Lee Correctional Institution co-workers – back in September.

S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC) director Bryan Stirling spoke at the press conference, making it clear his agency would use every tool at its disposal to hold its employees accountable. Stirling specifically addressed the child porn (a.k.a. sex abuse materials) allegations, saying they shocked him.

“The allegations are horrific,” he said. “I will never ever forget that poor child’s face.”

Stirling has been the most aggressive proponent of jamming cell phone signals in South Carolina prisons. In fact, Wilson referred to him as a “national leader” on the issue.

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“We’ve been telling you this is a problem over and over and over,” Stirling said.

Former U.S. attorney (and current U.S. district court judge) Sherri Lydon also made this issue a priority during her brief tenure as a federal prosecutor, penning an oped in The Wall Street Journal alerting the public to the growing dangers posed by the proliferation of wireless devices behind bars.

“The only way to stop the public-safety threat from contraband phones is to disable cell signals and render the devices completely useless,” Lydon wrote

Six years ago, I reversed course and called for jamming cell phone signals as part of an expansive vision for prison reform.

Why? Because as mentioned, earlier, the objections simply weren’t valid. The truth is prepaid phones and prepaid phone minutes constitute a multi-billion dollar annual industry – one that encompasses virtually all extra-legal prison usage. Wireless providers simply do not want to part with that money.

In lieu of jamming, Stirling has requested $32 million from the S.C. General Assembly in the upcoming budget to pay for hardware and operating costs tied to blocking individual cell phones based on their IMEI (or “International Mobile Equipment Identity”) number. He hailed the success of such a program at Lee Correctional Institution.

“Our pilot project at Lee has been successful,” SCDC spokeswoman Chrysti Shain said.

According to Shain, the hardware will cost about $1 million for each prison – which equates to $20 million in one-time money. It will also cost an estimated $12 million in recurring money to operate on an annual basis. Not all of that money will come out of the pockets of taxpayers, though.

“We will be able to use some of the money we get from legitimate inmate phone calls to help offset the recurring money,” she said.

Stay tuned. Our media outlet plans on addressing this proposed appropriation – and the broader cell phone jamming issue – in a subsequent editorial.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Will Folks (Dylan Nolan)

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven (soon to be eight) children.

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