Inmates risk much to buy, sell contraband cellphones at Lieber state prison
Editor’s note: Part 2 of a 2-part series
RIDGEVILLE — Under the cover of night, two prisoners slither through the cut bars on their window and silently drop to the ground below their cell.
They scamper across the yard at Lieber state prison, staying low as they head for the fences with wire cutters in hand.
Snip, snip. One fence breached. Snip, snip. Another hole opens in the razor wire. The pair are now one step closer to the world they had left behind.
But it’s not freedom they’re after this balmy night in July 2010. The two men have their sights set on a backpack that friends have tossed over the outer fence at this maximum-security prison in rural Ridgeville. The friends had packed 69 cellphones that the two prisoners plan to sell to fellow inmates.
These phones sell for $40 or so on the outside, but they can fetch up to $500 a pop inside the prison’s walls, a cool profit of $31,740.
The phones command such a premium because they give convicts an unfettered link to the outside world, a secret conduit by which they can coordinate smuggling drops, carry out blackmail schemes, torment their victims or simply speak with family and friends without their captors’ listening in.
The phones are a powerful form of technological currency inside South Carolina’s prisons and they, along with tobacco, represent the leading contraband items smuggled into the state’s correctional facilities.
It’s a lucrative black market economy controlled by inmates more capable of living behind bars than on the outside. The enterprise undermines security and, at times, snares guards and others in its grasp.
The fruits of smuggling can add a substantial bonus to the modest paycheck of prison workers who succumb to the temptation. But the risk is heavy. Since 2005, more than 200 correctional officers and other prison employees from the state’s 27 prisons have been fired, disciplined and/or arrested for contraband violations, including some at Lieber.
Authorities do their best to disrupt the flow of illicit goods, taking what victories they can in this war of attrition. On the night the 69 phones landed at Lieber, for example, prison officials nabbed the two AWOL inmates as they crawled back into their cell with the sack full of contraband. The inmates left empty-handed for an extended stay in lock-down confinement.
But Lieber Warden Wayne McCabe doesn’t think for a minute that this bust has solved his problems. He needs only to visit the prison’s storehouse of seized contraband to see how extensive the smuggling epidemic is. There, piles of cellphones — from cheap, untraceable “burners” to Blackberrys — lie scattered on a pair of tables.
“It’s a daily challenge, and we spend an incredible amount of time going after cellphones and tobacco,” McCabe says. “We average about three cellphones per day (that are seized). And they are all better phones than I have.”
The tables contain 742 phones, all seized during the first 11 months of 2011. There’s no telling how many more remain out there. Systemwide, South Carolina corrections officers seized about 2,500 cellphones from the state’s prisons each year.
Just last week, Lieber officials searched the cell of an inmate after learning he had called a relative on a smuggled phone. They finally found the phone when they ordered him to strip off his clothes. He coughed and the phone came shooting out of his backside, McCabe says.
“That illustrates what we are battling here on a daily basis,” he says.
Several prisoners called The Post and Courier on secret phones to complain about conditions at Lieber in the weeks after a riot shook the prison in January. One such call came just an hour after a reporter visited the prison. “I saw you out there on the yard with the warden,” the convict said, before offering his own take on life at Lieber.
Fighting the tide
Lieber is far from the only prison struggling with such issues, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating for McCabe and his team. They constantly watch for smugglers, contraband and homemade weapons. The problem is, they’re up against a wily collection of criminals who have nothing but time to invent new ways to defeat security measures.
“I don’t think you are ever going to stop it completely,” McCabe says. “The inmates basically have three jobs while they’re here: try to escape, try to get contraband in and try to get us fired.”
McCabe knows a lot about prisons. He’s worked in them for the past 26 years, rising from an entry-level guard to run a 1,400-inmate prison that houses the state’s Death Row and some of South Carolina’s most dangerous criminals. He took the helm here in 2010, determined to make a difference.
“This facility has got the worst of the worst,” says Maj. Thierry Nettles, a longtime Lieber supervisor. “This is the end of the line as far as where you go in the Department of Corrections.”
An affable man with a firm handshake and chiseled features that resemble actor Kirk Douglas’, McCabe must maintain order in this hard-knocks facility amid deep budget cuts and employee turnover that’s left him down 38 officers — roughly 15 percent of his 251-member staff.
It’s not just budget issues behind those vacancies. It’s hard to find people cut out for this work, harder still to get them to stay.
Staffing shortages mean more frequent lockdowns for prisoners when problems emerge. Thin staffing also means a single officer might be in charge of supervising 150 convicted felons at a time. “It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that those odds suck,” Nettles says.
On a recent morning, the prison seems to run like clockwork, with well-behaved inmates moving between buildings in an orderly fashion, taking care to keep within the yellow-lined borders of the paths they must follow. Several pause to say hello to the warden as he passes them on the well-manicured grounds, which could resemble a community college if not for the razor wire overhead.
One dorm wing, recently renamed the “Character Unit,” houses 124 inmates who have demonstrated good behavior. They get extra privileges as long as they keep the wing orderly and clean. It’s a way of rewarding those who serve their time without acting up, and McCabe hopes to expand the program this summer.
But the curse-filled screams that echo through the corridors of a nearby segregation unit for problem offenders hints at the rage that simmers just beneath the surface within these prison walls. Some of these folks will never taste freedom again. And their frustrations boil over at times in ugly ways. You can almost bank on it.
“You can’t stop bad outcomes in prison,” says former Corrections Director Jon Ozmint. “You can minimize them, set a goal of having none. But if you take the most recalcitrant, most violent, self-absorbed one percent of the population and put them behind fences in close contact with one another, you are going to have trouble from time to time.”
A history of violence
Violent confrontations at Lieber have cost lives: James Belli of Summerville, 19, was shanked in the neck by a fellow inmate in 2006.
On the night of the Jan. 18 riot, two officers were keeping watch over 229 murderers, rapists and other hard-core offenders when they were beaten with a pipe and overpowered in the Ashley dorm, which officers have dubbed “The House of Pain.” Ashley remains locked down as a result of the melee.
The contraband room contains souvenirs from that night, including metal legs that were broken off desks and fashioned into clubs and homemade spears. Also on hand are more than 100 shanks seized after the riot — crude but effective knives made from a variety of items, from screwdrivers to metal slats from ceiling vents.
It seems as if almost anything can be turned into a weapon. Take the pair of metal locks attached to an extension cord to form a mace-like bludgeon. Or the nunchakus with handles created by heating plastic wrap until it molds into a hard stick. Or the hatchet formed by strapping a piece of sharpened metal to a stick with strips of bedsheet.
Former Sgt. Scott Jones quit his job at Lieber just a week before the riot, saying he sensed a powder keg about to explode. Jones says that because of understaffing, it is not uncommon for officers to find themselves working alone at night on a wing full of violent offenders. These officers have to enter three-man cells armed with nothing more than a radio, keys and pepper spray, he says.
“If I have to fight them, I’m only going to be able to do that for so long,” Jones says. “Sooner or later, they’re going to get the advantage on me.”
Easy money, big risk
Some inmates take advantage of prison workers in other ways, tempting them with cash or sex to turn to the dark side. With starting salaries for corrections officers around $24,000, the bait can be difficult for some to pass up.
Take the case of Kadetra McCain, a former prison kitchen worker caught trying to smuggle more than six ounces of marijuana into Lieber in her bra in 2010. Or former corrections officer Paris Rainey, who was fired that same year for having sex with an inmate and smuggling in Ecstasy and pot, records show.
Inmates are always on the lookout for a potential turncoat to use to their advantage. “We have officers who, on their very first day on the job, have inmates asking them if they want to make an extra $1,500 a week,” McCabe says.
The warden and his commanders try to set a good example by being on the yard as much as possible and showing solidarity with their troops. McCabe says he’s done just about every job at Lieber, from frisking visitors to scrubbing bathrooms. He tries to lead by example, build on the enthusiasm he finds and instill core values. That’s why he painted the word “Integrity” over the front door his officers pass through on their way to work each day.
It doesn’t always work. A half-dozen employees were terminated in the past year at Lieber for misconduct issues. Nettles says the vast majority of prison workers are dedicated, hard-working employees who perform a thankless job that very few people can stomach. “But when we do find something, we make an example out of them,” he says.
A bulletin board in the room where officers begin their shift includes a “Wall of Shame” featuring arrested employees. Among those featured is Erica Edwards, a nurse facing a lengthy prison sentence for bringing drugs into the facility. “I think she will tell you today — it’s not worth it,” reads a caption under her photo. “Just say NO to the inmates.”
Nettles says most contraband is thrown or carted in by outsiders, including vendors. Officers have found cellphones submerged in waterproof packages within tanks of liquid, or marijuana hidden in secret compartments in vehicles. The smugglers are always switching up their game, he says.
Officers take great pains to thoroughly search visitors and vehicles. And the prison is now working more closely with outside law enforcement to catch smugglers who try to heave contraband over the walls. Such efforts paid off in March when a 35-year-old Greer woman was caught trying to deliver drugs, phones, cigarettes, tools and ammunition to an inmate at Lieber, authorities says.
But stop the smuggling entirely? That’s a tough order.
“These things will continue to happen as long as we have individuals who we place in prison,” McCabe says. “They are going to do their best to do things to make our lives miserable.”
One memorable incident occurred while a contingent of state and local law enforcement officials were on hand for a ceremony to retire an aging United States flag at Lieber. They were in the midst of the proceedings when a loud “clunk!” sounded.
They found a large industrial magnet had fallen off the underside of a maintenance truck. The humid air had loosened its grip, dropping the magnet to the ground along with the hidden cargo it was holding up: a big old satchel of pot and cellphones.
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.