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Technology required to keep prison cells free of cellphones

Posted June 22

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— State and federal authorities acknowledge that keeping cellphones out of the hands of inmates has become a major problem in recent years.

The issue was highlighted during the recent trial of Kelvin Melton, a gang leader accused of masterminding the abduction of a Wake County prosecutor's father while behind bars. Authorities said Melton used a cellphone smuggled into a state prison in Butner to order the kidnapping and then provide step-by-step instructions to subordinates about how to carry it out.

A federal court jury convicted Melton on Tuesday of conspiracy, kidnapping, attempted kidnapping – this charge was related to a separate kidnap plot in Louisiana – and using a firearm during a violent crime.

"We must do more to prevent convicted criminals from reaching out from their prison cells to continue their criminal activities," Acting U.S. Attorney John Bruce said after the conviction.

The state Department of Public Safety has confiscated more than 4,300 cellphones from inmates in prisons across North Carolina since 2011, including 382 so far this year.

"The Melton case put a person – a family – at risk, and it really became a public issue at that point," said Kenneth Lassiter, deputy director of prison operations for DPS, adding that it showed people how far inmates are willing to go to get their hands on a phone to communicate with people outside the prison walls.

Phones have been inserted into footballs, tennis balls and similar objects and hurled over prison fences, Lassiter said, and drones have been used to fly over prisons and drop phones into recreation yards.

"This past week, they attempted to use arrows," he said. "They're actually trying to take bow and arrows and shoot (phones) over the perimeter fences."

DPS spokeswoman Pamela Walker said an arrow was found Tuesday at Maury Correctional Institution in Greene County, adding that arrows have been found at other prisons previously.

Two officers at Butner Correctional Institution, where Melton was incarcerated, were indicted on charges that they smuggled cellphones to inmates.

Lassiter said salary increases for prison staff in recent state budgets should help reduce such contraband in the future.

"You can't bribe many staff members to bring in a phone for $200 or $300 because now they're paid the wages they truly deserve," he said.

But technology is DPS' main weapon to keep prison cells free of cellphones, he said.

Prisons statewide have installed "cell-sense" systems at their gates, which are similar to airport security screening systems and trigger an alarm if someone tries to sneak a cellphone inside. Some facilities are also using "managed access," which blocks unauthorized cellphone signals, and that is in the process of being rolled out statewide.

Authorities also are experimenting with having prison visits done via videoconferencing rather than in person to eliminate the possibility of a relative or friend passing a phone off to an inmate.

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