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Cellphones find their way into Oklahoma prisons

Jul 15, 2016 | by Lynn Powell

Have you read about all the cellphones and other stuff getting into the prisons? This is what DOC is doing to stop it.

by Andrew Knittle Published: July 10, 2016    http://newsok.com/article/5508897

ATOKA — On a cold night in March, Atoka police officer Brian Morgan was driving north on U.S. 69 when he pulled behind a Toyota Prius traveling in the passing lane at just 50 mph.

After the vehicle crossed the centerline — a moving violation — Morgan pulled over the driver

Behind the wheel sat Gwendolyn Renee Ramsey, of Broken Bow, who told the officer she was lost and trying to find a casino to meet a friend. She was nearly 100 miles from home, and about 10 miles south of the Mack Alford Correctional Center.

But as Morgan began to look at the items in plain view inside Ramsey’s car, he became suspicious.

“I noticed numerous amounts of tobacco in the back hatch of the vehicle, several packages cut open of AT&T cellphones in the front passenger seat and a bottle of liquor protruding from a paper bag in the front passenger floorboard,” Morgan wrote in an affidavit.

When officers searched Ramsey’s vehicle, they found 12 bags of pipe tobacco, a bottle of Captain Morgan’s Spiced Rum, a box of cigarette rolling papers, a roll of duct tape, a box of black trash bags and six AT&T cellphones.

The traffic stop — already far from routine — soon became even more unusual.

As police searched Ramsey’s vehicle, her phone began to ring. On the front screen, the caller ID showed “Tracy French 244179.”

“My experience with the (Oklahoma Department of Corrections) led me to believe the six-digit number after the name was an inmate number,” Morgan wrote in an affidavit filed in Atoka County District Court.

Cellphones find their way into Oklahoma prisons

As cellphones become increasingly sought-after items behind bars, Oklahomans are finding new and creative ways to make contraband “drops” behind prison walls.

Those who succeed can earn thousands of dollars for making a single drop, according to law enforcement sources. Failure, however, can lead to years behind bars.

No stranger to law enforcement, Ramsey knew she was caught on that cold March night.

“Gwendolyn at this time admitted that she was instructed to leave the items found in her car at a trash dumpster near the prison facility and the items were being used to repay a debt that a DOC inmate friend of hers had accrued during incarceration,” Morgan wrote in the affidavit. Ramsey, 49, pleaded no contest in May to a single count of attempting to bring contraband into a penal institution and was placed on probation for two years. Others caught and charged with similar offenses in recent years haven’t been so lucky.

 

Lengthy sentences

Authorities caught career criminal Sheronda Fields trying to smuggle three cellphones into the Oklahoma State Reformatory during a January 2013 visit. Guards discovered the devices, which Fields had hidden in her bra “wrapped in black electric tape,” during a pat down.

Fields, 45, who first served time in the late 1980s for robbery, was sentenced to 12 years after she pleaded guilty to one count of possession of a cellphone in a penal institution. When she’s released, records show, Fields will be on probation for 33 years.

In August 2015, police arrested Oklahoma City residents Tonya Grummons, 41, and Wesley Fuller, 49, near the south gate of the Oklahoma State Reformatory. The pair told police they were lost and trying to find their way to Altus. Officers searching near where prison guards first spotted the couple found a backpack that contained eight cellphones and chargers, 5 pounds of tobacco wrapped in 34 small bundles and 242 grams of marijuana.

After brief questioning by police, Grummons admitted she was paid $500 to make the contraband drop and claimed that Fuller walked the backpack “approximately 100 yards” onto prison property before hiding it in some tall grass, according to the affidavit.

In October, Grummons pleaded guilty to one count of bringing contraband into a penal institution, a felony. She was sentenced to five years in the Hillside Community Correctional Center in Oklahoma City.

Fuller, who has a lengthy criminal history in Oklahoma, pleaded guilty the same day as Grummons and received a 10-year sentence, records show.

Some of those caught were, themselves, fresh out of prison.

Convicted felon Jon Lang left state custody on March 19, 2015, after serving almost 10 months for leaving the scene of an accident in Muskogee County.

Two days later, authorities arrested Lang at the Lexington Assessment and Reception Center in Cleveland County after he was caught “throwing objects over the fence.”

Lang, 42, hid in a creek on prison grounds before a police dog finally tracked him down. Authorities recovered 4 pounds of tobacco, a morphine tablet, a cellphone and three cellphone chargers on prison grounds.

“The defendant stated to me that he was attempting to make extra money” by doing so, an officer wrote in an affidavit.

He pleaded guilty to one count of bringing contraband into a penal institution and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Some would-be smugglers appear to have no previous criminal experience.

Police arrested McAlester resident Klessia Sweet, 61, March 6 after a guard saw her “drop contraband onto prison grounds” at the Jackie Brannon Correctional Center, one of two prisons in McAlester. Sweet, who had no arrest record in Oklahoma, would later claim the package “was mailed to her, when she lived (elsewhere in McAlester), with the phones and a pack of cigarettes” inside, an affidavit stated. Sheclaimed she never set foot on prison grounds and simply tossed the black trash bag into a parking lot, as instructed.

Sweet pleaded guilty to one count of bringing contraband into a penal institution and was placed on probation. Soon after, she vanished and has not been seen since, according to court records. Her probation officer has recommended her suspended sentence be revoked.

What are they used for?

Inmates use cellphones to communicate with friends and loved ones on the outside, flirt with strangers online and indulge in social-networking websites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, prison officials say.

“They can use them for anything, just like the rest of us on the outside,” said Terri Watkins, spokeswoman for the state Corrections Department.

They also can use them to continue their criminal behavior or operations.

“They can harass victims of their crimes,” Watkins said. “They can harass women or other people, family members. We definitely see the dark side of cellphones and what they can be used for.”

Frank Bone, police chief in Granite, is on the front lines in the battle to keep cellphones out of prisoners’ hands. His department, along with the security force at the Oklahoma State Reformatory, has arrested dozens of would-be smugglers in recent years.

“We’ve got 60, 65 we’ve caught the past couple of years trying to bring in phones, drugs, tobacco and all sorts of other stuff,” Bone said Wednesday. “But phones are the main thing we’re seeing now. It might have five or sixother things in the drop … but there are always phones in there.”

Bone said smuggling cellphones and other contraband into Oklahoma’s prisons has become a cottage industry, of sorts, for those willing to take the chance. And the industry is booming, the chief said. Some of those arrested in the past told of being paid “a couple hundred bucks,” Bone said.

“It’s gone … to now where it’s up to $2,000, $3,000 for a drop,” he said.

A couple weeks ago, the chief said, authorities caught a woman trying to toss two cellphones, a charger and some tobacco over the reformatory’s wall for her son, an inmate.

“We’ve got ’em like that and then we’ve got ’em trying to bring in 15, 20 cellphones, chargers, marijuana, meth, lighters … all at once,” Bone said.  “We caught one guy here recently who told us it was his fifth trip he’d made. He said he was making $1,500, $2,000 per trip. That’s a lot of money … for anybody.”

‘Amateur hour is over’

Joe Allbaugh, director of the state Corrections Department, has made the seizure of cellphones and other contraband a top priority since he arrived in January.

And it’s no wonder why. More than 20,000 cellphones were found in state corrections facilities between 2010 and 2015 — including a record 7,705 last year — and recent trends suggest that number will only continue to climb.

A “strike force” assembled in February by Allbaugh, that includes cellphone-sniffing dogs and more than 20 specially trained prison guards, has seized 176 cellphones and 248 chargers during a series of surprise raids at prisons and halfway houses across the state, according to a review of department records.

The strike force also found nearly 40 pounds of tobacco, 16 MP3 players, 11 wireless headsets, a computer tablet, tattoo guns, a Wi-Fi hot spot and at least $1,436 in cash, among dozens of other items.

“Inmates need to be on notice that we are taking a hard line on keeping (contraband) out of our facilities,” Allbaugh said following the first strike force raid in mid-February. “We will ensure inmates caught with contraband are punished properly and individuals trying to bring contraband into a facility are prosecuted.”

“Amateur hour is over,” he added.

Employees likely involved

Not every contraband item gets thrown over a prison fence or flown in by drone. Sometimes they’re carried in by the prison guards themselves, state corrections officials say.

A review of state Corrections Department termination documents reveals that at least five Corrections employees have been terminated since January 2013 for contraband-related offenses.

It’s unclear how many of those cases involved cellphones, but a department spokeswoman said, given the work of the strike force and the sheer number of contraband phones, “there’s no doubt some of the terminations are because of cellphones.”

“Can I give you numbers? Can I tell you how many? No, because we don’t track it that way.”

Watkins said the Corrections Department takes “action on the bringing of contraband, but the type of contraband is not usually listed in the dismissal (paperwork).”

“It’s a problem,” Watkins added. “That’s why (Allbaugh) created the strike force to go out there and get a handle on it. Cellphones, over the past 10 years, as they have proliferated and become cheaper and more available, they’ve become a bigger problem in prisons. Anything they are not supposed to have becomes a hot commodity, all the way down to hot sauce.”