For more than a decade, the South Carolina Department of Corrections has been dealing with issues stemming from inmates having access to contraband cell phones.

Just last month, an inmate convicted of running a drug ring from prison while serving 30 years for murder was charged with the kidnapping and murder of a woman in July in Laurens County.

James Peterson is accused of orchestrating the killing of Michelle Dodge, 27, by using a contraband cell phone from a state prison. While announcing the charges against Peterson, Laurens County Sheriff Don Reynolds urged the Federal Communications Commission to allow prisons to jam cell phone signals within the prison fences.

“It puts lives at risk when there are cell phones on the inside,” said David Stumbo, Solicitor of the 8th Judicial Circuit, which includes Laurens County, where Dodge was killed. “Prosecutors are at risk; law enforcement, victims, witnesses. And so it’s for everyone’s safety to make sure that we control this problem and attack this problem.”

Stumbo spoke at a news conference Sept. 27 with South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson announcing the state grand jury indictments of 21 new defendants in an ongoing prison cell phone investigation called Cash Cow. The investigation includes more than 200 charges against 38 defendants.

Wilson said the alleged conspiracy could not have occurred without cell phones. He described the operations run by eight current SCDC inmates as “sophisticated and highly lucrative.”

A defendant in a major federal drug case has been accused of trying to make arrangements with people on the outside to have the prosecutors and the lead witness in the case killed. Stumbo said an assistant U.S. Attorney was threatened. The same concern goes for defense attorneys.

“You have a defense attorney who represents someone and they don’t get the result they want in court, that lawyer may be at risk because that inmate gets into the system, they get a contraband cell phone and they say, ‘You know what? I don’t like the result of the work that that defense lawyer gave me,’ which they often do complain when they get into the prison system. And they decide to reach out to somebody on the outside to put that attorney at risk,” Stumbo said.

Defense attorneys that are working cases for incarcerated clients need to be aware if they’re getting calls from inside prison on the unauthorized cell phones. SCDC director Bryan Stirling said he hears frequently that inmates are using contraband cell phones to call their attorneys. That puts the attorney in a bind because they know the client is breaking the law by calling them on a phone they are prohibited to have, but because of attorney-client privilege, the attorney can’t report it. Stirling reminds attorneys they need to insist their clients call from prison phones so that their calls are recorded.

Columbia attorney Kathy Schillaci of McCullogh & Schillaci said the attorney-client privilege is not negated because a person is incarcerated, however. She suggests prisons provide affordable phone service that is easy for inmates and their families to use and is sensitive to attorney-client privilege, which could ease the contraband cell phone problem. 

“As an attorney, I do not want to receive calls from a contraband phone,” she said. “I also do not want my clients or inmates seeking representation to fear that their attorney-client conversations are being recorded or monitored by prison officials, prosecutors, or persons unknown.”

For years, Stirling has been lobbying the FCC and the federal government to allow the prisons to jam cell phone signals. Three days before Wilson’s news conference, the U.S. Department of Justice released its report on a test of technology at a South Carolina prison that blocks cell phone signals inside the walls. The cell phone providers, FCC, and some people living near the institutions were concerned that the technology would affect cell phone signals outside of the fences. It didn’t. The results of the study done in April showed that microjamming of cell phone signals could be effective in preventing the use of contraband cell phones in prisons.

“We proved legally that this could be done,” Sterling said.

The test proved that calls were blocked inside an inmate housing unit yet calls could be made one foot outside of the housing unit perimeter. Similar tests by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration done at a federal corrections facility in Maryland were proven effective as well.

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