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Contraband Cell Phones Play Role In Ending Riot

In this instance it appears a contraband cell phone in a South Carolina prison may have been used for a good purpose – to alert authorities to a riot in progress.

Cellphones played a prominent role in the Lee County prison riot that that ended in the early-morning hours Wednesday with tear gas and the release of a guard being held captive. Cellphones like the ones that inmates used to talk with officials during the riot are illegal in prison, but many inmates have them.

“I’m told an average cellphone — nothing real fancy — will go for $500,” S.C. Department of Corrections spokesman Clark Newsom said.

No one has any idea how many of the state’s 23,000 inmates have cellphones. But Newsom said that in the past six months, about 3,600 cellphones have been confiscated from inmates during shakedowns and searches across the Department of Corrections’ 27-prison archipelago.

Although some cellphones are obviously smuggled into prisons by guards or visitors, most are thrown over the fences that surround prisons, including the sprawling 1,100-inmate maximum-security Lee Correctional Institution, one of the state’s highest-security prisons, just outside Bishopville, about 60 miles east of Columbia, where the riot took place, Newsom said.

Prisoners, sometimes using cellphones, tell friends on the outside where to throw packages, Newsom said. Often, such packages contain cellphone chargers, cigarettes — also illegal in state prison — and marijuana, he said.

And it’s not easy for guards to spot the “throw-over” packages. For one thing, the state prison system doesn’t have enough guards to eyeball all the open space outside a prison, Newsom said. And although prisons have “rover” vehicles that patrol the fences, someone can hide in nearby bushes or woods and wait for the patrol to leave the area, he said.

No one was seriously hurt in the riot that started Tuesday night and ended shortly before 4 a.m. Wednesday when some 100 law officers wearing gas masks stormed a high-security building inside the prison where a guard had been taken hostage.

“The corrections officer was a little sore, but his biggest worry seemed to be he had broke his glasses,” Newsom said.

The incident took place in a prison wing called the Special Management Unit — a lockdown unit for inmate disciplinary actions. “These are the worst of the worst,” Newsom said.

Tuesday about 9 p.m., that guard had been escorting a nurse who was dispensing medicine. Normally, the nurse provides the medicine through a locked cell door. But for some reason, the door was unlocked. Inmates grabbed the guard, but the nurse escaped.

From the beginning, inmates used a cellphone to talk to the outside. One called the Lee County Sheriff’s Department dispatch center, apparently using the 911 number, Newsom said.

Newsom said he didn’t know the exact nature of that call, but it was most likely made by an inmate who wanted to let prison officials know more than 100 prisoners had seized control of a prison wing and had taken a guard hostage. The inmates had demands — including better medical treatment, three hot meals a day and restoration of the books and legal papers they said the new warden had taken away.

“You’ve got to remember these are criminals,” Newsom said. Inmates, who are accustomed to a routine, often get upset when a new warden comes into a facility and begins to make changes, he said.

The Lee County dispatcher contacted the county sheriff’s department. That agency called prison officials. Prison officials alerted their SWAT-like special response teams and asked the State Law Enforcement Division for help. SLED sent its own team of agents trained to go into riots. SLED Chief Mark Keel came to the scene, along with state prisons chief William Byars.

The SLED and corrections response teams used explosives to try to blast open a door, but eventually went in another entrance.

“We encountered no resistance once we were in,” Keel said. “Most of the inmates were in their cells.”

Inmates had been tear-gassed and may have been cowed by the noise of the explosions, Keel said. “I’m just thankful there were no serious injuries, to inmates or to officers.”

In recent years, the corrections department has experimented with various technologies that would “jam” or intercept cellphone signals in a prison. Some 30 states have indicated they would like to take this sort of action. However, federal law prohibits states from blocking radio transmissions.

Officials don’t like cellphones in prisons not only because inmates use them to help direct contraband, including other cellphones, into a prison but because prisoners may try to keep directing criminal enterprises from behind bars.

Cellphones are not the only modern technology posing problems for prison officials. Inmates have been using Facebook for various purposes. A new bill that would make it a crime — punishable by a $500 fine and 30 days in jail — for an inmate to use a social media site to harass or contact a crime victim appears on the verge of becoming state law.

Newsom said many facets of the Lee County riot remain unknown and will be investigated.

“It’s all under review,” he said.