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Cell phones in prison called an "epidemic"

7:33 PM, Dec 7, 2011   |    comments
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A photograph taken by an inmate with a cell phone shows prisoners setting fires during a disturbance at Hancock State Prison.

SPARTA, Ga - Inmates at Hancock State Prison are still under 24-hour lockdown after a disturbance that prisoners likely planned using cell phones.

"It's at an epidemic level," said Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens. "Cell phones in prison aren't about calling grandma for Thanksgiving. It's about power, it's about money, and often times it's about gangs."

The November 25th uprising at Hancock injured twelve people. An investigative report says an inmate was stabbed while there were multiple fights in one area of the prison, while inmates in another area set fires, broke TVs, and entered an administration building where they set more fires.

Owens believes the fires were used as a distraction to divert attention from the fights.

"We believe the activity was synchronized and coordinated through illegal cell phones," said Owens.

A relative of an inmate sent 11Alive pictures taken by cell phones during the disturbance. They show inmates setting fires as well as one inmate wearing what appears to be a corrections officers jacket.

Owens insists the inmates were never in control.

"We were in control the entire time," said Owens. "They were in confined areas."

Over the past year, corrections officials have confiscated more than 8-thousand cell phones from inside Georgia. Inmates had plenty of help getting them, sometimes from prison employees.

On the Corrections Departments Facebook page you can read the names of the 366 people arrested over the past year for smuggling contraband into Georgia prisons. That includes the man who just last week threw a bag with 8 cell phones over the fence at Hayes State Prison.

57 prison employees are among those who have been arrested, including the corrections officer caught smuggling 3 cell phones into Macon State Prison in October.

Owens says it could be stopped by technology that is available to jam calls inside prison walls. He says the Federal Communications Commission won't allow it.

"Technology exists, relatively inexpensive technology, and the states should be allowed to deploy it," said Owens.
Governor Nathan Deal has written a letter to the chairman of the FCC asking the Commission to allow prisons to use the technology.

"I respectfully urge you and the Commission to reconsider your position that "cellular jammers" are unlawful under all circumstances," Governor Deal says in his letter. "Carving out an exception for the use of this technology in prison facilities is sound policy to protect inmates, corrections employees, and the public."

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