©Copyright 2013, The Oklahoman
Like a lot of guys their age, brothers Clifford and Cliffton Putman regularly get on Facebook to stay in touch with friends, flirt with women and publish thoughts on life.
“U like gangstas?” Clifford Putman, 26, wrote one woman in May who commented on his profile picture.
“Sorry got nuthin for gangs!” the woman responded. “nice body i might add!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Both brothers are convicted murderers, serving lengthy prison terms at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester for a fatal shooting. There, and across the state's prison system, it is against the rules to access social media sites.
An investigation by The Oklahoman found dozens of male state inmates have used smuggled cellphones to access Facebook from behind bars. The inmates blatantly post online personal photos taken with cellphone cameras. Many strip to the waist to show off tattoos. Some flash gang signs.
Some have made hundreds of online “friends,” mostly women. With their cellphones, inmates can access these friends' own Facebook pages. One of Cliffton Putman's recently added friends is a Miami, OK, strip club manager. Her Facebook page features dirty jokes and photos of the club's half-naked dancers on stripper poles.
Some inmates get caught — one when he sent a “friend” request to a corrections officer's Facebook page, prison records show.
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“He also sent one to one of my family members,” the officer wrote.
Other inmates are getting away with Facebook use, the newspaper's investigation found.
One inmate posted comments as recently as Saturday.
While seemingly innocuous, inmates on Facebook are the most visible examples of a growing problem that corrections officials have been powerless to stop.
How do they get access?
Cellphones are regularly being smuggled into the state's correctional facilities, allowing murderers, rapists, thieves and other criminals a direct and unmonitored connection to the outside world. Hundreds of contraband cellphones are seized each year.
Since Jan. 1, 2012, guards have caught inmates with cellphones or found evidence of illegal cellphone use more than 3,000 times, records show.
Two hundred of those inmates were murderers, the records show.
Inmates have used contraband cellphones to access pornography, operate drug rings, make threats and contact relatives and friends, prison and court records show.
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Last year, a thief was suspected of using a cellphone to extort money from another inmate's mother, the records show.
One inmate was suspected of using a cellphone in 2006 to order a “hit” on his own brother for being a snitch, court records show. The inmate was never charged in his brother's 2006 fatal shooting because of insufficient evidence.
One female inmate was caught in a prison shower making a cellphone video of another female inmate who was naked and speaking baby talk, the records show.
Often, a caught inmate would break the cellphone or flush it down a toilet, the records show.
Guards and inmates' relatives smuggle in many of the cellphones, officials say, but organized groups have become part of the growing problem. Sometimes, getting a cellphone inside a prison is as simple as throwing it over the fence.
“You get reports of ... a group that just goes around from facility to facility dropping off cellphones ... It's fairly organized,” said Jerry Massie, spokesman for the state Corrections Department.
“A lot of the facilities are next to highways, kind of isolated,” he said. “The guards will go out and search the perimeter once in a while and occasionally they'll find a gunny sack kind of thing, you know, full of 50 phones, along with chargers, drugs and cigarettes. We've found 25 or 30 of those things recently.”
The problem is not unique to Oklahoma.
In 2008, a death row inmate in a Texas state prison used a smuggled cellphone to make a threatening phone call to a state senator, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported to Congress in 2011. The same phone was used by other inmates.
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In 2007, an inmate in a Maryland detention center ordered the murder of a state witness via cellphone, the GAO reported. In 2005, an inmate in a New Jersey prison used a contraband cellphone to order the murder of his girlfriend, who had testified against him at a trial.
One convict who has been caught with cellphones told The Oklahoman inmates can't live without them.
“I have learned my lesson on using a cellphone in prison,” wrote drug offender Joseph Sheets. “But if I wanted to I could have one today. … I got my first phone write up in 2009. That month 27 people got a write up for a phone on the same yard.”
Sheets, 30, is at the Lawton Correctional Facility. In response to mailed questions from the newspaper, he wrote that inmates will risk having cellphones to keep up with their families and save money. He wrote each call from a prison phone at his facility is $4.
“I guess some people move money and drugs but most people are just not trying to be forgot about. If you don't stay in your people's ear that is what will happen,” he wrote.
Is anything being done?
Little is being done to slow the flow of cellphones into Oklahoma prisons aside from increased shakedowns and keeping a closer eye on guards and other prison staff.
“I think the shakedowns are helping,” Massie said. “Everybody that goes in there is searched ... you didn't used to have that. Everybody is searched at the medium and maximum facilities.
“You've got fewer and fewer staff ... watching more and more inmates,” he said. “That probably plays some role in their ability to get them in because you have fewer people to do some of the random, unannounced-type shakedowns.”
The Federal Communications Commission does not allow correctional facilities to “jam” cellphone calls. Congress would have to change a 1934 law for jamming to be permitted in state prisons.
Prison officials in Mississippi, California and South Carolina have tried a managed access system to address the problem. Such a system allows only 911 calls and calls made from authorized phone numbers to go through.
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In its first month of operation, a managed access system at the Mississippi State Penitentiary reportedly blocked 325,000 call and message attempts.
“We've looked at that,” Massie said. “Costs about a million dollars a facility to put something like that in.
“There's that and there's some issues about how effective it is. There's issues about making people give up their cellphone numbers, particularly people who live around the facilities.”
State law makes it a felony for an inmate to possess a cellphone. For some, that's not a deterrent — particularly if they're unlikely to ever get out anyway.
“For some of them — the people doing the 85-percent crimes, the rapists, the murderers — it doesn't matter,” Massie said.
Richard Hall, Newsroom Developer