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Behind the Bars: Phones in SC prisons putting public at risk

Cell Phone inside.jpg

COLUMBIA, SC (WACH) - State prison officials say contraband is a significant problem at every prison in South Carolina.

Miles of razor wire and high walls outside those facilities isn't enough to stop those items from getting inside.

Things like drugs, tobacco, alcohol, weapons and cell phones are constantly finding their way behind the bars.

"This is a serious matter. Our people's lives are at stake," said SC Corrections director Bryan Stirling. "This is just a war that we have ongoing that the Department of corrections has with contraband coming in."

Stirling and teams of corrections officers work every day to keep the bad stuff on the outside. But, despite their best efforts, contraband items are still winding up inside. Inmates are going to great lengths to get those things in relying on people on the outside to use drones to drop it in or slingshots to shoot items over the walls.

Items are even smuggled in by staff in exchange for cash.

"Any way they can find a way to get it in, they have all day every day to think of ways to get it in," said Stirling.

WACH Fox News was given rare access to the cell blocks at Kirkland Correctional in Columbia, a maximum security facility, when officers made their daily rounds.

It only took them seconds to find something that shouldn't be inside a cell. A piece of metal hidden in a door jamb that could be fashioned into a weapon. Minutes later, a cellphone found inside a pillowcase. That phone is one of the most valuable things on the inside. Phones can sell for hundreds and hundreds of dollars.

The steeper pricetag comes next.

Those phones give inmates access to life on the outside, allowing them to continue running criminal networks from the inside, and even allows them to order violence against officers who work there.

"The public should know that it's a problem," said Stirling. "We've had officers threatened. We've had staff members, warden's family members stalked on social media."

Stirling says the best way to stop inmates from using those phones, is for prison to block blocking cellphone signals. However the Federal Communications Commission has been reluctant to do that, despite South Carolina and other states lobbying them for more than a decade.

In the meantime, the phones are still being used, and officials are doing what they can to stop it.

Two years ago, a measure failed at the State House that would have beefed up penalties for people involved in providing contraband to inmates.

Director Stirling expects more proposals to be debated at the State House when the legislative session begins in January. He and other leaders are asking lawmakers to give the Department of Corrections more money in the budget so they can give pay raises to corrections officers. It's something he says will allow them to hire more officers and help eliminate the temptation of accepting cash to help smuggle in contraband.

Meanwhile, prison authorities will continue asking the FCC to reconsider blocking cell signals near prisons..

"It's an ongoing war," said Stirling. "Some days they'll win the battle, some days we'll win the battle. We just have to keep on going."

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