Georgia inmates using cellphones to commit more crimes

by: Kerry Kavanaugh Updated:

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ATLANTA - A Channel 2 investigation found Georgia inmates somehow getting cellphones behind bars and using them to commit more crimes.

 Channel 2 Kerry Kavanaugh found there is technology to stop it, but Georgia won't put it in place just yet.

 Jeannette Mims still has nightmares about the March robbery at her family business in Columbia, S.C. Police said it was orchestrated by an inmate in a Georgia prison.

"I just knew at that moment that he was going to kill us. I was just wondering where he was going to shoot me first,” Mims told Kavanaugh. "He had the gun, swinging it, swinging it over his head, ‘Get the you-know-what on the floor.’ And I thought, ‘I will never see my family again.’"

For Jill Stevens, it was a phone call from a phony cop about a phony speeding ticket. The scam cost her every dollar in her checking account.

"I said to myself, ‘I had just been taken big time,’" Stevens said. “He said ‘I have a warrant for your arrest’. And I said, ‘For what? What have I done?’"

These women are victims of very different crimes. But Channel 2 Action News has learned both can be traced to Georgia prisons. The suspects are inmates who are still victimizing the public using smuggled cellphones.

Theirs are among dozens of cases we found across metro Atlanta where the suspects are already behind bars.

"It's an outrage. I mean, it's an outrage,” Stevens said. "Don't they have floor to mop or something in jail?"

"I couldn't believe it, I really couldn't. It was unbelievable that someone in prison would have access to a cell phone,” said Mims.

The numbers show a growing problem in Georgia's state prisons. According the Department of Corrections, in 2011 guards confiscated about 4,800 illegal cellphones. The next year the number more than doubled to 9,900. And as July this year, more than 5,100 have been confiscated.

Department leaders said cracking down on prisoners' access to cellphones is a top priority. But they wouldn't tell Kavanaugh what they're doing about it. Their counterparts in Mississippi did.

"This is a significant problem in corrections, not only in Mississippi, but throughout the country,” said Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps. "We need to do everything we can get a handle on it."

Epps said that includes new technology known as a “managed access system.”

Mississippi corrections officials said their system blocks all unauthorized calls and texts. Epps described it like an umbrella that captures calls from unauthorized phones.

When a prisoner makes a call from a smuggled phone, they immediately hear a recorded message.

"I gotcha, you're not going out,” Epps.

Epps said they've intercepted more than 5 million calls and texts from the two state prisons where the system is in place.  Because of the success, they are bringing it online in a third by the end of the year.

Kavanugh made several attempts to speak to the Georgia Department of Corrections about their efforts to stop prisoner cellphone use. They declined to do an interview.

Georgia state Sen. Jack Murphy said lawmakers, along with the Georgia Department of Corrections, are studying several technical options.

“The hold-up is, when looking at any type of system, you want to pick the best one that's going to fit your needs. Before we go out and spend a lot of money doing it, we want to make sure it's going to work properly,” Murphy said.

Murphy acknowledged this is a serious problem and he also said as lawmakers head back into session, they will have to find the money to bring something like this into Georgia.

But, victims say while lawmakers research, people are getting hurt.

"I pray I don't ever have to go through anything like this again,” Mims said.