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Summerville man earns 20 more years for running drug operation out of prison

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Joseph Umphlett Sr.

Joseph Umphlett Sr., 39. South Carolina Department of Corrections/Provided

A Summerville man has been sentenced to 20 years in federal prison after he pleaded guilty to using a contraband cellphone while behind bars to traffic meth and heroin throughout the tri-county area.

Joseph Umphlett Sr., 39, was already serving a life sentence without parole for trafficking methamphetamine.

The 2015 sentencing marked his third serious drug conviction in state court, the U.S. Attorney's Office said. The federal sentence will be served following his sentence in state prison.

Once in prison, Umphlett used contraband cellphones to lead a drug trafficking operation across Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties, the U.S. Attorney's Office said. Law enforcement eventually seized over 5 kilograms of meth and over 3 kilograms of heroin from the operation.

SCDC records show Umphlett had been disciplined in 2017 and 2019 for possession of a cellphone. Each time, he lost canteen privileges, telephone privileges and visitation privileges for 110 days, according to the records. He also lost television privileges for 360 days.

Eleven co-defendants, including Umphlett's mother, were indicted with him. His mother was sentenced to 100 months in federal prison and three years of supervised release for her role in the operation, the U.S. Attorney's Office said.

Contraband is big business in prisons, previous Post and Courier reporting has found. Smuggled cellphones often fetch $800 to $1,000. Contraband can come in over the fences or through visitors, vendors and prison staff. Inmates essentially control the prisons, former corrections employees have told The Post and Courier.

Since 2015, the SCDC has confiscated more than 25,000 cellphones and accessories, spokeswoman Chrysti Shain said. To stop contraband from entering its facilities, the SCDC has deployed 50-foot nets to prevent throw-overs and technology to detect drones, among other measures. The agency also hopes that states may soon have the authority to jam cellphone signals inside state prisons.

In November, 54 people were indicted in a drug trafficking operation that used contraband cellphones. The case was known as "Prison Empire" to the S.C. Attorney General's office. Current and former inmates had used cellphones to traffic drugs as well as firearms. Inmates were also able to arrange kidnappings and burglaries, the Attorney General's office said.

"An illegal cell phone is the most dangerous weapon in our prisons today," the director of the S.C. Department of Corrections, Bryan Stirling, said in a release at the time. 

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Reach Fleming Smith at 843-937-5591. Follow her on Twitter at @MFlemingSmith.

Fleming Smith covers crime and public safety for the Charleston area. A native Georgian, she previously covered breaking news and features for The Wall Street Journal and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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