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Updated: Friday, 01 Feb 2013, 4:20 PM EST
Published : Thursday, 31 Jan 2013, 11:10 PM EST
PENDLETON, Ind. (WISH) - Prison officials say cell phones are now the most dangerous piece of contraband they face. The devices have been linked to everything from organized drug rings behind bars, to gang recruitment, witness and victim intimidation and even murder. But, I-Team 8 found the call to silence cell phones inside cells going unanswered.
The state puts criminals behind bars to keep you safe. But, this growing problem is helping them reach out from behind prison walls to commit new crimes.
They’re so valuable, inmates are willing to pay thousands of dollars for a single flip-phone, often knowing they’ll likely eventually be caught.
I-Team 8 was given exclusive access behind prison walls to help find out why.
CONTRABAND IS KING
Inside Pendleton Correctional Facility in Madison County, guards face a daily battle over contraband with nearly 1,900 inmates. The list is always evolving and often growing, from heroin and marijuana, to knives made from sharpened plastic or metal found in prison walls, tobacco and tattoo guns.
It’s all a danger to those “on the inside.”
But, over the last few years, the most dangerous cells in Indiana have been reaching beyond the bars. And, they’re being uncovered now by the thousands.
“We now confiscate between 100 and 200 cell phones a month,” said Indiana Department of Corrections Operations Director Jim Basinger. “Since 2006, we've confiscated 8,000 cell phones. It's definitely a safety and security issue for the agency and the public. And, part of our mission statement is to protect the public.”
It’s a problem nationwide, but one that seems to be amplified in Indiana.
The number of phones confiscated in federal prisons doubled from 2008 through 2010, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. President Barack Obama signed a law in August of 2012 making possession of a phone or a wireless device in a federal prison a felony, punishable by up to a year of extra sentencing.
But, they’re still getting in.
According to the GAO report, in the first four months of 2010 alone, the Federal Bureau of Prisons confiscated 1,188 cell phones. And, while larger states like California now find, on average, around 10,000 illegal cell phones behind bars, Indiana is among the highest in the Midwest for illegal cell phone recovery.
“Absolutely,” responded Pendleton Assistant Superintendent Duane Alsip, when asked if IDOC has a contraband problem. “No doubt about it. We continuously find cell phones on offenders, especially when we shake down. We know there's a problem there, and we deal with it on a daily basis. And, it is getting worse.”
STOPPING THE FLOW
Indiana’s 26,000 inmates have become increasingly creative as they work to smuggle contraband in, prison officials said. But, they often rely on those on the outside for help.
“They come through the back gate. They come through the front gate. They're concealed inside of property. They're concealed inside of containers coming into the facility. We have visitors bring cell phones in. We have some staffers bringing cell phones in,” Basinger said.
“If you can think of a way to get it in, the inmates probably have too,” Alsip said. “Some of it's coming over the walls. Darkness is their friend. They dress in dark clothing and stuff and sneak toward the facility, and then they'll shoot the stuff over the walls. Some of it's coming in some of the shipments we get in. And, unfortunately we do have staff that's bringing some of it in.”
In June 2012, 11-year veteran IDOC prison guard Wanda Strickler, 59, was convicted of attempting to smuggle a cell phone to an inmate at Pendleton. The phone and a charger were discovered during a routine metal detector search as Strickler reported for duty in late December 2011. A strip search uncovered the items, hidden inside a body cavity.
Two months later, police arrested Aramark food service worker Sarah Edwards, after prison officials say she was found inside Pendleton with two cell phones and a bag of marijuana. She now faces several felony charges.
And, just three weeks ago on January 10, Internal Affairs officers at New Castle Correctional Facility arrested prison guard Richard Rice, 47, as he tried to enter the facility. Police say Rice had heroin, marijuana and a cell phone and charger hidden on him when he was arrested.
Visitors are being caught too.
Stacey McKee, 39, was arrested in May of 2011 inside Pendleton, after passing a package containing a cell phone to her husband, Chad Huddleston, who is serving a 31 year sentence for escape, burglary and forgery. She was convicted and is now serving four years behind bars at the Rockville Correctional Facility.
IDOC investigators handled at least 26 other cases of alleged trafficking last year alone.
Once they’re inside, the cell phones are hidden the most unlikely places.
HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT
“You name it, we’ve probably found it. They'll split and hallow out the bottom of a shower shoe. It’s inside mattresses. And, as technology gets smaller and smaller, it'll be more of a problem,” said Pendleton Internal Affairs Investigator Tom Francum.
Inmates are even hiding the phones inside their own bodies.
IA officers recently found one flip phone lodged inside an inmate's colon, after watching a visitor pass him an item during a contact visit. While being strip searched, the inmate put the phone, surrounded by 15 grams of cocaine and wrapped in black tape inside of his body. An x-ray revealed the hiding place, and the phone was removed surgically at Wishard Memorial Hospital.
The visitor was sentenced to four years at Rockville.
But, for every phone that is found, thousands more remain hidden.
“We’re finding maybe 50 percent,” Francum said. “A cell phone might get in here and last four to six months before we find it.”
It's become the most valuable commodity behind bars.
“A $15 cell phone you can buy at the dollar store sells for roughly $1,000 inside the facility. It’s [more valuable than drugs], because it helps get the drugs in here,” Francum said.
Add an internet connection and the value goes up even more.
“The last one of these we found in here was $3,900,” Francum said, holding up an iPhone 3GS. “The offender actually admitted to paying $3,900 for it. Those are a much bigger problem. We have multiple problems with Facebook. We get phone calls weekly where inmates are harassing their significant other, their ex-girlfriend, another female on Facebook via cell phone. They have no access to the internet, other than cell phones. These are all communications that we can't monitor. And, that’s our biggest concern.”
A PRISON CRIME WAVE
Cell phones are now being blamed for a rise in crime directly connected to prison inmates.
“Everything from drugs to gangs through communications that we can't monitor,” Francum said. “And, a cell phone led to the death of an inmate [at Pendleton] last summer.”
Daniel Dewitt, 35, of Columbus was beaten to death at Pendleton by two inmates, in what prison officials now believe was a mistaken hit from a gang known as the Maniac Latin Disciples.
“We had one gang get into an altercation with another gang in another [prison] facility. The phone call was made that evening that the gang had a hit on them. The hit was actually executed in the cell house, and the offender was executed,” Francum said.
“By the time we got the offender moved from where the murder was to the lockup area, it had already been communicated to another facility where the murder had taken place. It was that fast,” Alsip said.
Cell phones have even aided in escapes.
In 2008, convicted murderer Sarah Pender used a cell phone smuggled in by a guard to help plan her escape from the Rockville Penitentiary. After busting out, she became one of the FBI's Most Wanted Criminals and was on the run for more than four months.
Some fear it’s only a matter of time before more innocent Hoosiers become victims in their own communities, far outside the prison walls.
“When you see the damage that these cell phones are doing with illegal activities and putting prison staff and prisons at risk, this is putting communities at risk too,” said Rep. Tom Dermody (R-LaPorte). “To me, that’s unacceptable.”
“SNIFFING” OUT THE PROBLEM
The numbers are discouraging, but IDOC is working to come up with “out of the box” solutions to reverse the trend, Francum said.
Their latest tool is of the “four legged” variety.
“This is our dog that's actually been trained in cell phone detection,” Francum said, pointing to a panting corrections officer on a leash nearby. “He’s able to detect lithium batteries in a cell phone.”
He’s one a small handful of K9 officers in the state trained to "sit" at the scent the batteries give off. His nose is so sensitive, he “alerted” when he smelled the batteries on I-Team 8’s cameras.
The dogs helped officers uncover a record 1,649 cell phones behind prison walls in 2011.
But, prison officials believe they have only scratched the surface.
That’s particularly troubling to lawmakers.
“I had no idea it was this bad,” said Rep. Greg Steuerwald (R-Danville), a member and former chairman of the House Committee on Courts and Criminal Code. “I was shocked to see the numbers. We have an enormous problem here. If you're smuggling in 8,700 cell phones into prisons, there are reasons for it. And they're not good reasons.”
A 2009 Indiana law made trafficking a cell phone into a state prison a felony. Get caught bringing one in, and you could face up to five years behind bars.
The problem is: most phones aren't caught until well after they’ve been brought in, and inmates don’t face the same penalties. The average punishment for an offender caught with a cell phone is a loss of 90 days of "good behavior time."
“All of our offenders here are doing 15 years or more,” Francum said. “So, 90 days to them isn't a big loss. I would say [most inmates] don't care at all [if they are caught]. We found one phone on a guy and two days later found another phone. Then, a week later, we found another phone on the exact same offender. With 38 years in prison, he doesn't care.”
Now, in the wake of I-Team 8’s investigation, Indiana lawmakers are now leading a national charge calling for help.
But, they’re running into new road blocks. Click here to find out why, and what solutions to stop the problem are now on the horizon.