Oklahoma prison system overwhelmed by contraband cellphones
Overwhelmed by a flood of smuggled cellphones used by gangs to commit crimes behind bars and on the streets, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections is calling on federal lawmakers to allow the use of technology that would block phone signals in certain parts of prison.
Since 2011, the Corrections Department has confiscated more than 48,500 illegal cellphones, including nearly 1,800 since January. In 2016, correctional officers confiscated a record 9,766 cellphones from inmates.
“It is the cornerstone of communication to the outside, where gangs run their criminal enterprises,” said Corrections Director Joe M. Allbaugh. “The time has come for us to stand up and put a stop to it.”
Corrections officials across the country have blamed cellphones as the cause of vicious crimes in prison and in public.
In April, seven South Carolina inmates were killed in a prison riot that officials blamed on cellphones. That same month in Louisiana, a former prison guard tried to drop off contraband, including 12 cellphones and nine chargers.
In February, federal authorities in Oklahoma announced that 18 members of the Universal Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang, were charged for their alleged roles in a racketeering enterprise and drug conspiracy.
Authorities said the gang used contraband phones to commit murder, kidnapping, money laundering, assault and robbery throughout Oklahoma.
More than 100 gangs operate in Sooner State prisons. While some contraband phones are used by inmates to contact relatives, many of the devices make their way into the hands of top gang leaders.
“The shot-callers can call out hits,” Allbaugh said. “They can threaten families.”
Illegal cellphones are typically brought into prison during inmate visits with loved ones. In many cases, a single correctional officer is overseeing a couple hundred people during the visits.
Kitchens are also a common area through which phones enter prison. In other cases, a corrupt prison guard may receive money to bring in the phones. The prison system is also dealing with phones dropped off by drones.
Inmates may get caught with phones on their bodies. In some instances, the devices are discovered during cell checks, with an inmate having placed a magnet on the phone to stick it under his bed.
Occasionally, prison staff will catch an inmate with a phone after the lights go out because of the glow of the device. The prison system also has technology that reveals nearby cell signals.
It is difficult to track who is paying for the phone services that inmates use. Regardless, the Corrections Department says the time has come for the federal government to allow the blocking of cellphone signals in parts of the prison where inmates move around.
The technology wouldn’t affect prison staff communications because they use radios to communicate, prison officials said.
Last year, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration reported that a test of jamming technology conducted at the Federal Correctional Institution in Maryland showed that wireless signals inside a cell were disrupted.
The signals were not disrupted at 20 feet and 100 feet outside the cell. Authorities said this showed the capability of “micro-jamming” cell phone signals within prisons.
Only federal agencies can obtain authorization to jam the public airwaves, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
This is why Allbaugh and state prison officials throughout the nation repeatedly call on federal lawmakers to ease the rules and allow for the blocking of certain wireless signals on prison grounds.
Frustrated, the prison officials say too many lawmakers are beholden to donors from the telecommunications industry.
Last week, U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, spoke on the Senate floor and called for a change in federal law that would allow states to use jamming technology to prevent the use of contraband cellphones in prisons.
“Why don't we change that law?” Lankford asked. “Great question. A question that should have been answered by this body a long time ago, but communications companies and cellphone company lobbyists overwhelmed this body and pushed back and say, ‘Let's study the issue.’”
Lankford said the time for studying the issue is over.
“Let me just bring this up to the cellphone industry,” he said. “You do not want your company name attached to pedophiles in prisons that are contacting children outside the prison, waiting until they’re released. You do not want your company name attached to a meth ring being operated inside a prison because you wanted to study the issue more. And you do not want your name attached to a prison riot where they took it directly back to the access for cellphones leading to that riot.”
Meanwhile, at the state Corrections Department facility in Oklahoma City, officials maintain a room filled with more than 160 boxes that contain thousands of confiscated cellphones. Some are marked as hazardous because the inmates hid them on their bodies or stored them in unsanitary places.
Matthew Elliott, Corrections spokesman, used safety gloves to open the boxes and pull out some of the phones. Many were flip phones. Some were smartphones. He even pulled out a smart watch.
Elliott said some of the phones can fetch $1,000 on a prison yard. Often, a prisoner will have a phone confiscated, only to be caught a few weeks later with another device.
"Just about every instance of violence behind the wire is due to cellphones and contraband,” Elliott said.