Atlanta

Bipartisan bill would toughen contraband cell phone laws in federal prisons

ATLANTA — A new bill introduced by Georgia US Sen. Jon Ossoff would get tough on contraband cell phones in federal prisons.

For years, Channel 2 Action News has reported on problems with contraband phones at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in southeast Atlanta.

In 2021, a sweep found 800 illegal phones at the prison. In both 2018 and 2019, we showed Facebook live videos recorded by inmates on phones inside their cells at the Atlanta facility.

“This offense of smuggling contraband into a prison, it results in death,” Ossoff told Channel 2 consumer investigator Justin Gray.

The new proposed bipartisan legislation from Ossoff and Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley would change the penalty for contraband cell phones from a misdemeanor to a felony.

“Without it being a felony, there aren’t serious enough consequences that would result in people potentially facing a jail sentence for doing it,” said Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

Ossoff said under current law, it’s difficult even to fire a prison guard caught smuggling contraband. He said changing this to a felony would fix that.

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“The Bureau of Prisons was unable to crack down on the flow of contraband in and out of federal prison facilities because smuggling contraband in and out, it’s just a misdemeanor in the federal criminal code. Unbelievable,” Ossoff said.

A report from the Inspector General earlier this year found the Atlanta facility had more non-natural deaths behind bars between 2014 and 2021 than any other federal prison. Seventeen inmates have died here in Atlanta.

“It’s not just about the safety in the prison. It’s about the safety outside the prison as well,” Horowitz said.

A contraband cell phone nearly cost retired prison guard Robert Johnson his life as he recounted his story to Gray in 2018.

“An inmate, locked up, used a cell phone to call a hit,” Johnson said.

“Contraband cell phones in prisons pose a threat to the general public. They pose a threat to officers within the prison, and they pose a serious threat to other inmates in the prison,” Ossoff said.

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