The Investigators: Cell block

By Nick Kenney - bio | email

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - Drugs, weapons and now cell phones have all been uncovered inside the Shelby County Corrections Center.

Andrew Taber runs the Shelby County Corrections Center, a medium security facility housing state inmates sentenced to no more than eight years.  While he said contraband in prison was nothing new, a number of working cell phones have been found inside just over the past few weeks.

"Somebody gets a cell phone to commit a crime on the outside," Taber said.

Cell phones inside are a major concern.  The prison provides inmates a phone bank from which all calls are monitored for intelligence.  Cell phones provide inmates the power of communication without the added supervision.

"There's so many opportunities for people to do wrong using these devices," Taber said.

All visitors to the prison first get a video warning about the consequences of smuggling items inside.

One woman hid marijuana in a bag of peanut M&M's and slipped the bag to an inmate.  A mother used a potato chip bag to also pass marijuana to her son.  Both women picked up felony charges.

Taber said cell phones getting inside are another issue.

"We strip search every inmate after visitation," Taber said.

The prison is in a high-traffic urban area where anyone can get within a few yards of the outer perimeter.

Taber said people use Nerf footballs as a vehicle for cell phones.  In a spot closest to the prison yards, inmates ask friends to wait until dark for extra cover.  They slice open the football, stuff a cell phone inside and throw the ball over.  A 30-yard throw gets the ball inside.

The prison installed motion sensor lights to alleviate the tactic, but a bag of 10 cell phones and chargers was found stuffed under a gate behind the county fleet garage, where the public has access.

"Somebody's making a conscious effort to try to get these to a spot where they figure somebody can get to them and distribute them," Taber said.  "An area where a work line of trustees will come by and smuggle them inside the facility."

Despite 140 surveillance cameras at a command post staffed constantly, prison staff has yet to catch anyone in the act.

"That's what we dream about," Taber said, "catching somebody in the act."

Confiscated cell phones wind up in a mailbox along with other contraband.  Administrators sort them out each morning, whereas they once destroyed the phones.

They now deliver the phones to the YWCA Battered Women's Shelter.  The cell phones will be converted to only use 911, then passed out to clients to use in case they feel threatened again.

"If they can be used for a good purpose, that's what we're going to do," Taber said.

Sneaking cell phones into prison is a felony for both parties involved.

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