Contraband cell phones in prison: who's to blame?

posted by Anne Emerson, WCIV - 

Bishopville, S.C. (WCIV) — They may be locked behind bars, but it doesn't always mean they are safe.

On Sunday, seven inmates were killed at Lee Correctional Institute in Bishopville during several prison riots.

Some blame gangs, others cell phones, still others blame the people who run the prison.

In a story you'll only see on ABC News 4, we take a closer look at the issue.

Over 6,000 cell phones were confiscated from state prisons last year.

At the end of the month, Bryan Stirling, director of the South Carolina Department Of Corrections will meet again with the Federal Communication Ccommission.

“This is about gangs fighting over territory. And if they’re incarcerated, they will have to have a cell phone to continue their criminal ways from behind bars,” Stirling said.

Do the wireless phone carriers, companies like Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, hold the key to stopping prison cell phone use?

“The problem is that the carriers could fix this tomorrow, but they won’t because it would cost them money,” says Jon Osmint, the former director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections.

He partially blames the companies for what happened Sunday night.

“They could simply block the geographic coordinates and never send a call to those grid coordinates, but they won’t do it because it cost them money,” Osmint says.

We now know that six of the seven inmates who died were punished for cell phone use as recently as February of this year.

It's not unusual, according to an inmate who spoke with us yesterday.

He estimates there are probably 75 contraband cell phones for every 500 inmates.

The inmate we spoke with, who asked not to be identified, said a problem is that inmates are not deterred by getting phones taken away.

“The majority of those people are doing long time for violent crimes and they are not eligible to do (anything) they can’t do anything,” says the South Carolina inmate who asked not to be identified.

The inmate is referring to programs offered at the prisons.

Reform programs he says are often reserved for non-violent offenders.

“There has to be some incentive given to violent offenders to give them a reason to do other than what they have to do right now,” says the inmate. Things which may include dealing contraband and drugs.

Four of the deceased inmates still had at least ten more years to serve. One of them was not eligible for parole.

South Carolina Minority Leader Todd Rutherford said there needs to be options to control the cell phones and treat our inmates more humanely.

“Why is that prisoners in other states like Florida have managed cell phone systems so that the government can monitor, what is going on, who they are communicating with, they can do it safely communicate with their families so that their families are not in prison with them. Why do we not have that in South Carolina?”

It's not cell phone jamming, but we just found out that SCDOC signed a three-year contract to install managed access technology at Lee Correctional.

ABC News 4 first told you about this system that's being used Maryland. The system will be installed next month and is expected to cost $1.5 million dollars. Read more about our investigative coverage on managed access technology below.

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