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S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling shows netting that rises 50 feet above Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville — one of the means of fighting the smuggling of contraband into state prisons. File/Wade Spees/Staff

In South Carolina's prisons, officials are ratcheting up efforts to combat the flow of drugs, cell phones and other prohibited items authorities say can wreak havoc behind bars.

Tall netting blocks packages that could once be thrown over short fences.

Drone detection technology stops illicit packages from being flown in.

A sophisticated camera system and counter-drones operated by prison staff keep a watchful eye on inmates from above. 

These and other initiatives, such as lobbying to bolster staffing levels and pay for correctional officers, and publicized arrests of civilians, staff and inmates who try to smuggle items, seem to be paying off. 

The pace of arrests has slowed compared to last year when there were 161 cases, 27 arrests of staff, 79 arrests of civilians and 121 arrests of inmates.

As of July 9, SCDC has reported 56 cases, and 61 civilians, nine staff and 31 inmates arrested. 

For Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, the numbers are both a sign that aggressive enforcement measures are having an impact and that more work needs to be done.

"It’s the constant battle," Stirling said. "We take a step and the inmates have all day to figure it out. We always have to be vigilant, just like all law enforcement on the street."

Enforcement

Part of the strategy has been publicizing contraband-related arrests.

On Wednesday, the department announced the arrest of a correctional officer, Uniqueqa Akeema James, for trying to sneak 4.34 ounces of marijuana into Lee Correctional Institution.

James walked through the Bishopville prison's front gate on July 22 with a package containing the marijuana, wrapped in electrical tape and concealed in her hair, according to an affidavit. 

A correctional officer for just over a year, James was charged with one count each of misconduct in office, possessing marijuana with intent to distribute and furnishing an inmate with contraband, according to an SCDC statement. 

Rena Hoover, a correctional officer with just under three months of service, was arrested June 25 after someone smelled marijuana on her, according to an affidavit. A search yielded a large brown sock that was hidden in a pants pocket. The sock contained two bags of a green, leafy substance investigators believe to be marijuana. 

Hoover was charged with furnishing a prisoner with contraband, criminal conspiracy and misconduct in office, according to a SCDC statement.  

"I do want people to know that if they’re going to try to introduce contraband, they’re going to be prosecuted," Stirling said. "This is a multi-tier approach."  

The department has also boosted its law enforcement ranks.

Its Division of Police Services — the agency that investigates department staff, inmates or others suspected of committing crimes on any state prison grounds — now has 48 personnel, roughly double what it was a few years ago, Stirling said.

Stemming the flow

While contraband items like weapons, drugs and tobacco are worrisome, Stirling believes the most dangerous are an innocuous item most people carry with them on a daily basis.

"When I talk with other people from other states ... the reason there’s a problem, it’s the cellphones," he said. "(They make it) very easy to coordinate and pay for contraband. Prisoners are physically incarcerated now but virtually … they have unfettered access to the outside world to continue their criminal ways."

The netting and surveillance systems help, but Stirling says SCDC needs to jam mobile phone signals — technology that's in place in the federal prison system but not yet legal for state prisons to use.

In addition to coordinating and paying for contraband smuggling, cellphones have been used to facilitate extortion payments to prison gangs that prey on weaker inmates, such as in the case of an Evans Correctional Institution inmate whose mother was forced to pay $3,000 to a gang to keep its members from seriously injuring or killing her son.

SCDC is testing a so-called "managed access" program at Lee Correctional Institution, technology that allows some cell signals to be blocked but does not offer total jamming capabilities.

The system can be set to block a specific radio frequency signal, but if a cellphone service provider changes the signal without telling prison officials, "the door's back open," Stirling said. 

"We’re looking at expanding it but we still would like to be able to block like the federal government is allowed to block," he said. "It’s up to Congress to change it."

'Instead of fighting it, embrace it'

Some, however, see South Carolina prison officials' crackdown on cell phones in particular as the wrong approach.

John Wojcik Jr. works as employment director at Fresh Start Visions, a North Charleston-based program that assists offenders in their transition back to civilian life. 

Wojcik, now 52, served more than 20 years in South Carolina prisons for his role in an armed robbery in 1994 that left a man severely injured.

During his time behind bars, Wojcik saw the impact that isolation and poor conditions can have on inmates. Cellphones should be regarded as a lifeline to friends, family and others that can help keep inmates on the right path, he said.

Most inmates do not use cellphones to plot attacks on people or run criminal enterprises, Wojcick said. By keeping freely in touch with friends and family, most inmates are encouraged to behave better. 

Life events like children growing up, parents getting sick or grandparents dying can be among the strongest motivations for good behavior behind bars, he said. Cut off those connections and the only people left to talk to are fellow criminals. 

"Instead of fighting it, embrace it," Wojcik said. "Would you rather me come back to society reformed or would you rather me come back to society as someone who has sat for 15 years with nothing to do but plot."

Prisons could control inmate cellphones by offering models that only include basic call and texting capabilities, he said.

State Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, agreed and said that in this day and age, inmates are going to get their hands on phones regardless of efforts to stop them from coming in.

Issues with contraband will be much easier to control if the state continues to reform its criminal justice system.

State lawmakers need to take another look at sentencing reform, especially at lengthy sentences doled out to nonviolent offenders, he said, adding that he planned to continue to push for a bill overhauling the 2010 sentencing reform act, which successfully decreased the number of prisoners and concentration of inmates at each prison.

And Rutherford also praised Stirling for "trying to move the ball down field," with limited resources at his disposal.

For his part, Stirling says he understands the difficulties and sees why inmates may feel the need to have a phone to keep in touch with loved ones.

"I want the folks that are incarcerated to be able to communicate with their family members, but I want to know what they’re saying and I want to monitor it," he said. 

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.