Special report: Prisoners using debit cards to smuggle contraband behind bars

By Harve Jacobs  bio | email | Twitter

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Inmates in South Carolina prisons have devised a scheme that allows them to smuggle drugs, tobacco and other contraband behind bars -- and it's all done with debit cards.

Corrections officials know it's happening, too.

A former inmate at Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville, SC witnessed the scheme while he served out a prison sentence there. "I know coming forward could put me at risk and it is with regret I'll probably leave the state after this interview just for my own safety's sake," said the inmate who only wanted to go by the name Tom.

Tom said the inmated are calling the shots from behind prison walls, buying things banned in the prison system. He said they use prepaid Visa and MasterCards that work like debit cards for people with credit problems.

The cards are easily accessible, usually found in discount and convenience stores.

"It's pretty simple," said the former inmate. "There are cell phones within the prison population. The inmates are using them to make calls to people on the outside. The inmate would have someone make a call to a third party on the street."

Tom said the person waiting on the outside purchases the prepaid cards.

It everything goes according to plan, he said, someone who is in on the scheme from the outside will take the card to an ATM, withdraw cash and buy prepaid cell phones, tobacco and other banned items to smuggle back into the prison.

Tom said the risk is high, but the potential to make a lot of money compels many inmates to participate.

"The person on the street makes the best profit. The inmate then makes his own profit. It's sold to a smaller man, and it's just like a street operation," he explained.

Tom said he was asked to be a player in the scheme after he was released from prison. In excerpts from a letter he received, an inmate instructed him to buy a debit card for the mother of a convicted killer.

"Of course, I didn't follow through with any of these instructions," Tom said.

State Corrections Director John Ozmint said inmates have the upper hand because they can get cell phones. Being on the inside isn't a deterrent for them.

"If you ask me whether or not there are cell phones in the housing units at Lieber, I'll tell you, absolutely," said Ozmint.

He said the phones are being thrown over prison fences, many of them hidden inside foam footballs that were seized at the prison.

Ozmint said the inmates call an accomplice who is near the fence and tells him or her exactly when to toss it over. "Probably 70 to 90 percent of it could be stopped if Congress could simply do the right thing and allow us to jam cell phones in prisons," said Ozmint.

He fears a smuggled cell phone will eventually be used to make a hit from behind prison walls. "I think you probably will see another dead person or two before Congress will finally do the right thing," said Ozmint.

The cell phone jamming bill is currently being held up in the U.S. House of Representatives. Ozmint said he's working with state police to try to reduce the number of cell phones being smuggled into prisons.

He declined to say how that would be done.

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