Live 5 Investigates: SC inmates finding ways around cell phone ban to stay on social media

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - South Carolina's prisons are designed to be a place you do not want to go.

But on Facebook, prison looks more like a party.

Inmates take selfies in their cell, post memes and talk with their friends as if they were back home on the block.

The state of South Carolina spent millions building prisons to keep the inmates in, but apparently they can't find a way to keep the cell phones out.

United States Attorney Beth Drake calls it a crisis in contraband.

"Among the most malignant of the items brought in are cellphones," Drake said during a recent news conference in Columbia.

She announced that former prison workers had been arrested on federal charges of accepting bribes and bringing contraband into prison.

Assistant United States Attorney Will Lewis says while incarcerated, some prisoners are running elaborate criminal enterprises on the outside from within.

"From narcotics distribution...to accessing the dark web, [that] was all done with a cell phone from inside the South Carolina Department of Corrections with a contraband cell phone," Lewis said."It's an example of how a person in prison can impact crime on the outside."

Online prison records show hundreds of inmates are punished every year for posting to social media.

However, the inmates don't seem to care.

For instance, one inmate was disciplined for creating a social media account, but sixteen days later, he appears to have been back, posting on Facebook from an account using his real name.

State Senator Karl Allen sits on the Corrections and Penology Committee.

However, he is not overly concerned about prisoners having access to cell phones.

In fact, he's in favor of inmates having access to cell phones in certain situations.

"It's not to be a party, it's not to be a social gathering," Allen said."But these are human beings that are inside of there and any inhumane treatment that violates the 8th amendment of the constitution, I think we have a responsibility to stop that. And so to the directors point that you're going to have some cell phones then perhaps that should be part of a reward for those who have good behavior. A part of adaptation for those who are getting ready to be released."

Department of Corrections Director Brian Stirling has made the elimination of cell phones his mission.

He blames cell phones for the deadly riots at Lee Correctional Institute.

When asked what they're doing about the problem he responded, "We're putting up netting. We're conducting a test that would stop some of the cell phone signals. We're working with the FCC to make sure that the signal does not work inside of our prisons."

Stirling says blocking the signal would make the phones useless.

But Allen says what it would really do is make it harder for the world to see what goes on in lockup.  Especially as it relates to the deadly riot at Lee Correctional.

"Some of that information that is coming from those cell phones is invaluable," Allen said. "As we look into whether or not there was an appropriate response time, as we look into whether they were actually outside of their cells, or inside of the cells so that we can determine whether some lives could have been saved."

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