Get Cellphones Out of Prison Cells
When news broke that disgraced tycoon Martin Shkreli has been using a contraband cellphone to operate his multi-million-dollar pharmaceutical business from prison, people were understandably outraged. After all, this convicted criminal, who shamelessly bilked consumers and gamed the system to enrich himself, was now doing the same thing behind bars.
As a retired Department of Corrections captain, this story hit particularly close to home for me. That’s because in 2010, when I worked as an officer at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina, I was very nearly murdered by a gang member in a retaliation attack coordinated by an inmate using a contraband phone.
I was in charge of finding, intercepting, and confiscating cellphones, weapons and other contraband at the facility. Needless to say, I was not very popular with some of the inmates. Contraband phones were their nefarious connection to the outside world — not to mention an illegal source of income— and I was cramping their style.
So, in March of that year, when I intercepted a package containing a trove of illegal drugs and cellphones — which I later learned inmates were planning to sell in prison for as much as $50,000 — the intended recipient was none too happy. Two months later, a gang member — who was paid $6,000 for his efforts — broke into my home and shot me six times in the stomach and chest with a .38 caliber revolver. I barely survived.
Sadly, my story is not unique. Just last month, a man in my home state was sentenced for attempting to use a contraband cellphone to deliver a mail bomb to kill his ex-wife. And in one of the most infamous and tragic cases to date, a gang member affiliated with the Bloods used an illegal cellphone to order the murder of a nine-month-old baby as retaliation against the child’s uncle, a fellow gang member.
Equally sad is the fact that these crimes could have been prevented. We have the technology to detect and disable contraband cellphones in correctional institutions. Wireless containment products that create a private cellular network within a prison or jail and prevent unauthorized phones from accessing commercial mobile networks exist. These products allow corrections staff to not only prevent illegal activity, but to identify and confiscate phones.
Why aren’t these technologies and products being used? Though a few facilities around the country have introduced such systems, that’s just not enough. Due to a lack of awareness, budget limitations, and — in some cases — institutional inertia, most facilities have yet to take action.
The time is to act is now, and there is no excuse not to do so. If prisons and other correctional facilities don’t make eliminating contraband phones a priority, it’s only a matter of time before someone else is killed. And a preventable death will be much more horrific than Martin Shkreli wheeling and dealing from his cozy cell.
My hope is that Martin Shkreli’s case brings much needed attention to the problem of contraband cellphones and serves as a wake-up call to corrections departments and elected officials around the country. We can’t afford to wait for more lives to be lost. All prisons should install the technology necessary to keep Americans safe.
Captain Robert Johnson is a former corrections officer from South Carolina’s Lee Correctional Facility, and an advocate for technology that can detect and disable contraband cell phones in prisons.