Dept. of Corrections calls cellphones their No. 1 issue

by: Kerry Kavanaugh Updated:

GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. - The head of Georgia's state prison system tells Channel 2 Action News inmate access to cellphones is a major problem and a constant battle.

But Department of Corrections Commissioner Brian Ownes said a true solution is currently out of reach in Georgia.

Owens told Channel 2's Kerry Kavanaugh, technology is out there to capture cellphone signals inside prisons, but it's too expensive to invest in something that could quickly become outdated.

Investigators said Dyuntria Lyons planned two violent jewelry store robberies in Gwinnett County in early 2011 using a cellphone from inside Smith State Prison in southeast Georgia.

Owens said inmate use of cellphones is an epidemic.

"It is the No. 1 issue," Owens told Kavanaugh Thursday afternoon. "That enables inmates in the prison system to talk among themselves, to talk across states, to plan crimes, potentially plan escapes. They're getting them in through staff, through civilians. They're literally throwing them over fence lines."

Last year alone the Department of Corrections said it confiscated 10,000 cellphones from inside Georgia's prisons.

In the past two years, they've discovered 466 civilians and 86 staffers smuggling cell phones.

"We put up some physical barriers, we do have some technology to help detect them coming in," Owens said.

Owens said technology that captures cellphones signals within prisons is costly and brings states into a web of complicated federal rules.

Gwinnett county investigators and prosecutors told Kavanaugh something needs to change and a criminal's threat to public should end once they're off the street.

"The victims should have felt safe at that point that he would serve his time and wouldn't victimize anybody else," Gwinnett County Assistant District Attorney Mike Morrison said.

Owens said the state has tried to deter this activity by making it a felony to smuggle the phones.

Dyuntria Lyons is serving six life sentences for his role in robberies. He is currently here in the Gwinnett County jail.

Kavanaugh requested to interview him, but he declined.

Federal law prohibits states from jamming cellphones signals.

States, including neighboring Mississippi and California, are currently using technology that legally captures and disables cellphone signals in prisons.