Feb. 5-VALDOSTA - It's illegal for inmates in Georgia prisons to own cellphones. That doesn't mean they don't have them.
In 2022, prison authorities in Georgia confiscated 229 phones from prisoners at Valdosta State Prison, said Joan Heath, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Statewide, more than 8,000 phones were seized from prison inmates that year, she said.
Attention to the problems of inmates with cellphones was highlighted recently when 22 state attorneys general, including Georgia's Chris Carr, urged congressional leaders to change federal law to allow prisons to use cellphone jamming technology, which is forbidden under the Federal Communications Act of 1934. The act forbids jamming of any and all authorized radio frequencies.
The Federal Communications Commission's website specifically states that "Local law enforcement agencies do not have independent authority to use jamming equipment."
In the letter to congressional leaders, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson sums up the arguments of the letter's co-signers: "Inmates use contraband cell phones to organize murders, riots, drug deals, fraud and much more. By utilizing contraband cell phones inmates are easily able to continue their criminal activities from inside prison."
Georgia's corrections department fully supports the effort to get cellphone jamming tech into prisons, Heath said.
"Cellphones are considered contraband and there are no exceptions for an offender possessing them," she said.
How the phones are getting in
Outsiders have tried sneaking cellphones into prisons by means of visitation, throwing phones over fences, hiding phones inside produce trucked into prisons and even by flying them into prison yards via drones, Heath said. Georgia's prisons reported 138 drone sightings in 2019, according to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service.
Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk - who oversees the Lowndes County Jail - said a major problem with tackling the inmates-with-cellphones problem is finding the source. He said prisoner work details outside of jails or prisons can sometimes get their hands on phones. Reports abound on news websites about families and friends of prisoners hiding phones in spots where work details are headed.
Paulk said the county jail doesn't have a huge problem with illegal cellphones but "it does flare up now and again."
Prison's phone woes
Through the years, Valdosta State Prison has had a number of headaches with smuggled cellphones:
- In 2015, a Valdosta State Prison inmate - Donald Howard Hinley - was indicted on one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances involving meth and four counts of actually distributing meth from 2014-15, according to the indictment.
Hinley was accused in the indictment of using several illicit cellphones to arrange for drug trafficking. "Hinley routinely brokered several illegal drug transactions in the Atlanta metropolitan area and in other areas of Georgia," according to the indictment.
The indictment also claimed Hinley tried to arrange a murder via cellphone, calling an associate in Telfair State Prison to get him to kill an inmate there who was "a snitch" and likely to be a witness against Hinley's girlfriend, who had been arrested for drug trafficking.
Also, "Hinley ordered his associate to 'shoot every one' of the witness' family members and said '... pop them all, kids, grandmamas, daddies, I don't give a (expletive), right?" the indictment claimed.
When prison officials found out about the scheme, the Telfair prisoner was put in protective custody.
After taking a plea deal, Hinley pleaded guilty to the conspiracy count. Hinley was already serving a life sentence for a 1999 murder in Long County, prison records show.
- A former employee at Valdosta State Prison was sentenced in federal court in 2020 after she was caught smuggling drugs and cellphones into the prison, the justice department said.
Melissa Crawford, 53, of Macon was sentenced to 46 months behind bars plus four years of supervised release after pleading guilty to one count of distribution of methamphetamine., according to the U.S. Department of Justice statement.
On Jan. 8, 2019, Georgia Department of Corrections investigators were tipped off that Crawford would be smuggling contraband into the prison the following day. On Jan. 9, Crawford and another corrections officer chosen at random were informed their vehicles were to be searched.
Crawford attempted to leave the premises in her car, nearly hitting another officer, but was stopped, the statement said. She admitted she attempted to leave because there were narcotics in her car and a search of the car revealed 27.53 grams of methamphetamine, a quantity of marijuana and four cell phones packaged in Ziplock bags, according to the statement.
Crawford admitted she smuggled contraband on at least four prior occasions and was paid with Green Dot cards for her deliveries of contraband to an inmate, the justice department said.
- Someone tried to smuggle phones into VSP tucked inside cabbages.
On Nov. 2, 2017, a produce truck attempted to bring in the contraband, a corrections department spokeswoman said at the time.
The illicit goods, which were found by staff, consisted of 811 grams of tobacco, 308 grams of marijuana, two LG touchscreen cellphones, one Samsung J3 cellphone and three cellphone chargers, she said.
- In 2018, VSP inmate Jeffery Deroy Lewis was part of a group of inmates at more than one prison using cellphone apps to send money to a Hays State Prison guard as a bribe to bring contraband into that prison, according to a federal indictment.
Lewis pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy with intent to distribute controlled substances in February 2021, court records show. Lewis is serving a life sentence for a 2011 murder in Fulton County, prison records show.
- Contraband goods were intercepted in Valdosta State Prison in 2019.
On Jan. 16, 2019, security staff at Valdosta State Prison found contraband inside a cooler with a false bottom, according to the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Beneath the false bottom were three bundles wrapped in gray tape and four packages wrapped in clear wrap, containing eight cellphones, officials said.
- In 2018, a Lowndes County jury ruled in favor of a former Valdosta State Prison employee in an unusual case involving the prison trying to give cellphones to an inmate: the ex-employee accused the state prison system of retaliating against him for whistleblowing, according to court documents.
A captain at the prison objected to orders from his superiors to provide cellphones to an inmate being used as an undercover informant in late 2010 because of safety concerns for the inmate, according to a 2018 statement from Trent L. Coggins, the fired captain's attorney.
Providing a cellphone to an inmate was considered illegal without authorization from a warden and is only allowed if the plan was put in writing, Coggins said. When the captain asked for the plan to be put in writing, he was reprimanded, the statement said.
The inmate was stabbed Jan. 4, 2011, after other inmates found out he was an informant, Coggins said. The inmate was taken to South Georgia Medical Center, treated, then transferred to another prison, he said.
The prison captain was placed on administrative leave after he threatened to disclose the operation; after he wrote a letter detailing the operation to Brian Owens, then the commissioner for the Georgia Department of Corrections, he was fired Aug. 23, 2014, according to the statement.
The captain sued the department in August 2015, claiming he was fired for objecting to and disclosing a violation of a Georgia law, Coggins said.
Terry Richards is the senior reporter for The Valdosta Daily Times.