SC inmate extortion

S.C. Department of Corrections/Provided

Since revelations that a group of South Carolina prisoners and others used cellphones to extort more than half a million dollars from hundreds of military personnel, officials have renewed calls for control of contraband behind bars. 

Four of the accused inmates — Wendell Bernard Wilkins, Antwine Lamar Matthews, Jimmy Dunbar Jr. and Rakeem Spivey — appeared in federal court in Charleston on Thursday for arraignment, a procedural hearing in which indictments are formally read and defendants enter pleas. All four pleaded not guilty. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rhett DeHart used a portion of Thursday's proceedings to argue the inmates should be held in federal custody at local jails because the prevalence of cellphones in the state prison system poses too high of a risk.

"Cellphones in prison are a recipe for mischief," DeHart said. 

The devices can be used to carry out any number of illegal or otherwise prohibited activities from behind bars, the prosecutor said. Prisoners can use smartphones to access pornography, harass victims, coordinate criminal activities and other nefarious purposes. 

In all, five inmates and 10 other people were implicated in what authorities have called a "sextortion ring." Each faces charges of extortion, money laundering and conspiracy to commit wire fraud, according to court documents. They face a maximum sentence of 20 years if convicted. 

According to authorities, the inmates created fake profiles on dating websites and posed as women who wanted to date military personnel. They sent nude photos found online and asked the victims to send nude photos in return. 

Inmates would then contact each victim and pretend to be the father of a juvenile female instead of the 18- to 19-year-old women they pretended to be. The inmates demanded money to keep quiet.

Wilkins was identified as the ring leader, DeHart said. 

The plot brought in more than $560,000 from 442 military service personnel, according to authorities.

"Wilkins claimed the money was needed for counseling and medical bills for the trauma that his 'underage daughter' suffered from the sexually explicit text messages," according to the indictment. "In some instances, other inmates ... who conspired with Wilkins called military members (while) posing as a police officer and threatened them with arrest unless they paid additional money."

Prisoners used family and friends to launder the money, according to the allegations.

Victims came from every military branch except the Coast Guard and all ranks, authorities said.

In the last year, the S.C. Department of Corrections has unveiled several security measures and other initiatives aimed at keeping cellphones and other contraband out of state prisons. 

Officials installed tall netting around the perimeter of prisons to keep would-be smugglers from tossing packages over fences. Drone detention technology was deployed to help stop items from being flown in.

Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling has also lobbied state lawmakers and Gov. Henry McMaster to provide more funding to boost staffing levels and pay for the state's chronically underpaid correctional officers. 

Stemming the flow of contraband, however, has been challenging. 

A deadly riot at Lee Correctional in April, which left seven inmates dead and 22 others injured, has been at least partially blamed on cellphones. Stirling has said the illegal communication spread the violence to three separate housing units.

The past three years saw contraband-related cases increase from 54 in 2015 to 161 in 2017, according to data provided to The Post and Courier. Prison officials arrested dozens of Department of Corrections staff, civilians and hundreds of inmates involved in contraband-related plots during that time. 

Stirling and others have lobbied federal officials for permission to jam cellphone signals in prisons, a proposal that has been blocked by opposition from cellphone companies. 

The technology is in place at federal prisons but is not yet approved for use at the state level.

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 told The Post and Courier in July.

"We need relief and we need it now," he said.

This story has been updated to correctly reflect the number of people implicated in the plot.

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.