Cellphones smuggled into prisons — enabling inmates to order murders, plan escapes, deal drugs and extort money — have become a scourge in a bloc of states where corrections officers annually confiscate as many as one for every three inmates.
Contraband devices snuck in by visitors or prison staff are a problem at lockups across the nation, but an NBC News review of data from 44 states shows that nine of the 10 states with the highest cellphone seizure rates are in the South.
In South Carolina, prison officers have found and taken one phone for every three inmates, the highest rate in the country. In Oklahoma, it’s one phone for every six prisoners, the nation’s second-highest rate. Other states in the top 10 are Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Florida and Arkansas and Louisiana; the only one outside the region was California. NBC based its rankings on data provided by the state corrections departments.
Cellphones are prized because they allow inmates to avoid privatized jailhouse phone and visitation services that charge up to $15 for a two-minute call home to friends and family. “Inmates call their mothers like most of us do on holidays,” said Dr. John Shaffer, former executive deputy secretary for the Pennsylvania Corrections Department.
But for some, the phones serve a darker purpose.
“Most of these guys are just chitchatting with their girlfriends, but some of these guys are stone-hardened criminals running criminal enterprises,” said Kevin Tamez of the MPM group, a litigation consulting firm that specializes in prison security.
Some prisoners in states with the most seizures have used phones to shake down families of fellow inmates threatened with injury or death. They’ve hatched complex scams, posing as law enforcement to prey on victims outside.
Meth rings operated by prisoners with cellphones, some with ties to prison gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood, the Irish Mob Gang and the United Blood Nation have been discovered in at least five Southern facilities. Phones have also played a role in breakouts, with one South Carolina inmate dialing up drone delivery of wire cutters and cash for his escape in July.