Wrong number: Contraband cellphones are major problem at Oklahoma prisons

An investigation by The Oklahoman found thousands of the state's prison inmates have access to smuggled cellphones. Dozens of the inmates use them to get on Facebook.
by Andrew Knittle and Nolan Clay Modified: September 22, 2013 at 11:00 pm •  Published: September 22, 2013

“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.

Contributing:

Richard Hall, Newsroom Developer

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by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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by Nolan Clay
Sr. Reporter
Nolan Clay was born in Oklahoma and has worked as a reporter for The Oklahoman since 1985. He covered the Oklahoma City bombing trials and witnessed bomber Tim McVeigh's execution. His investigative reports have brought down public officials,...
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