Prisons in Oklahoma struggling to halt contraband cellphones

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The Oklahoma Department of Corrections is asking federal lawmakers to authorize the use of cellphone signal jamming technology after being bombarded by an overflow of smuggled cellular devices they say gangs use to commit crimes inside and outside prison.

Since 2011, the Corrections Department has seized over 48,500 prohibited cellphones, which include almost 1,800 since January, The Oklahoman reported.

“Just about every instance of violence behind the wire is due to cellphones and contraband,” said Matthew Elliott, a Corrections spokesman.

In 2016, state correctional officers removed a record-high of 9,766 cellphones from inmates.
Corrections officials across the U.S. have cited cellphones as the reason for violent crimes behind bars and on the streets.

In April, federal officials oversaw a cellphone jamming test at a South Carolina state prison after seven inmates were killed in a gang fight, in part over contraband cellphones. That same month, a former Louisiana prison guard attempted to deliver contraband, which included 12 cellphones and nine chargers.

In February, federal officials in Oklahoma declared that 18 associates of the Universal Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist prison gang, were indicted for their alleged roles in a racketeering enterprise and drug conspiracy.

The gang used contraband phones to commit murder, abductions, money laundering, assault and robbery in Oklahoma, according to authorities.

More than 100 gangs currently operate in Oklahoma’s state prisons. Some contraband phones are used by inmates to contact family, but top gang leaders use most of the devices.

“The shot-callers can call out hits,” Corrections Director Joe M. Allbaugh said. “They can threaten families.”

Illegal cellphones are usually smuggled into prison during family visits when there is often just one correctional officer supervising hundreds of people.

Kitchens are another common area where phones are brought into the prison. An inmate could broker a business transaction with a jailer to bring in the phones. The prison system is even dealing with drones dropping off the phones.

“It is the cornerstone of communication to the outside, where gangs run their criminal enterprises,” said Allbaugh. “The time has come for us to stand up and put a stop to it.”

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