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Bad connections: Cellphones in Ohio prisons enable drug deals, gang activity, identity theft

December 16, 2018

Bad connections: Cellphones in Ohio prisons enable drug deals, gang activity, identity theft

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Craving drugs and cash, inmate Edward Bellman led a prison smuggling ring with the most versatile tool behind bars: an illegal cellphone.

Bellman used the phone to call his drug dealer and arrange for methamphetamine to be delivered to him inside the Chillicothe Correctional Institution in July 2017.

Authorities caught onto the scheme and twice stopped shipments to Bellman, 46. He was indicted and pleaded guilty earlier this year. He was sentenced in September to five more years in prison for conspiring to deal meth.

The case highlights one of the most difficult challenges inside Ohio’s prison system and correctional facilities across the country: The growing use of illegal cellphones allows inmates the chance to commit crimes from their cells.

For as long as there have been prisons, inmates have tried to communicate to friends and family about criminal schemes and conspiracies. They wrote coded letters and passed hushed messages during visiting hours.

But illegal cellphones have made committing crimes far easier for inmates, as they have replaced brief, word-of-mouth missives with unlimited calls.

Cellphones allow inmates to skirt pay-to-use phones the prisons provide for inmate use. Prison officials monitor and record calls on those phones.

Because of that, felons have used the contraband cellphones to set up drug deals, coordinate gang activities and steal identities, according to interviews and published reports.

The problem is exacerbated today by smart phones, which also permit inmates to send and receive videos. The videos can carry detailed instructions on committing a crime.

In Ohio, the number of confiscated phones has nearly doubled since 2013, records show.

That’s when prison guards grabbed 585 illegal phones, or 12 per 1,000 inmates. Last year, they recovered 1,102, or 22 per 1,000 inmates. And for every phone that is confiscated, officials say there are many more that are never discovered.

While the number of seized illegal cellphones continues to jump, more drugs and alcohol are seized as contraband in Ohio prisons than anything else, with 3,291 items grabbed in 2015, the most recent year available, according to prison records. That’s 65 items per 1,000 inmates for the year.

“The list of bad things you can do with a cellphone is endless; put one inside a prison and that list is compounded,’’ said Ed Voorhies, the managing director of Ohio’s prison operations.

County jails aren’t exempt from the problem. Authorities said the push to get cell s into jails, where inmates are awaiting trial, is just as great as it is to get the devices into prisons. The number of seized phones is often far less, however, as the average stay of inmates in county jails is about a month.

Officers in the Cuyahoga County jail have confiscated eight phones already this year. County officials grabbed two last year.

No federal agency tracks seized cellphones from each state. But it is clear that there is mounting evidence in jails and prisons of the damage illegal cellphones can cause.

Take South Carolina.

A riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in April left seven inmates dead and nearly 20 injured in a span of seven hours. The leader of the prison system, Bryan Stirling, told reporters the riot was “all about territory, all about contraband and all about cellphones.’’

Inmates using the phones even sent reporters and prisoner advocates messages during the attack. Afterward, they sent out videos of the prison’s conditions.

Heather Ann Thompson, a history professor at the University of Michigan, said she received videos from the prison’s inmates that showed that the phones played a vital role in detailing what happened and how officials responded. She said the phones provide a public service, as they are a way to watch how prisons are run.

“The reality is that, in nefarious hands, technology can be quite harmful,’’ Thompson told The Plain Dealer. “But that can happen anywhere. In prisons, the phones can provide a way of determining what is actually going on there, whether people are being treated humanely in these institutions the public pays so much for but knows far too little about.’’

Others strongly disagree.

“In my opinion, the threat of contraband and the threat to the security of the institution far, far outweigh that,’’ said Richard Resendez, a former investigator at the Grafton Correctional Institution.

Footballs filled with phones

Inmates and their families and friends have thought up countless ways to get the small, thin devices inside prisons. The phones have been smuggled by staff and visitors, thrown over prison fences in hollowed out footballs and dropped by drones in recreation areas.

Voorhies said the Ohio prison system is working at stopping the means used to get the phones in. He said it also is pushing to render illegal cellphones useless. He said he hopes “to put a stop to this within the next few months.’’

He won’t say how, citing security reasons.

Some prisons across the country have used canines that specialize in tracking cellphones. They also have tried sophisticated metal detectors that can sometimes detect the phones.

Others have set up systems known as managed networks, which allow wireless access to employees and officials within a facility, but no one else.

The plans require approval by the Federal Communications Commission. The major drawback is that the networks can also affect phone service in nearby neighborhoods, according to a report by National Institute of Justice, a research arm of the U.S. Justice Department.

In most states, the attempts haven’t had much of an effect.

Last year, California authorities seized more than 13,000 illegal cellphones, the Associated Press reported.

A seized phone led to a large-scale federal indictment of a gang at the Pelican Bay State Prison in northern California that peddled methamphetamine and heroin on Snapchat and Facebook, according to court records and prosecutors. The case is pending.

In Ohio, the numbers of confiscated phones aren’t nearly as large. From 2007 through 2017, prison officials seized 5,591 cellphones.

Officers grabbed the most, 1,158, from the Mansfield Correctional Institution, where many younger inmates are housed. But the Hocking Correctional Institution, where older inmates served their sentences until the facility closed earlier this year, did not have any phones seized.

Cell phones seized in Ohio prisons

>Since 2007, Ohio prison officials have seized 5,591 cellphones. Most of the phones were taken from prisons where a majority of younger inmates are housed: the Mansfield Correctional Institution, the Richland Correctional Institution and the Ross Correctional Institution. The prison system seized 585 phones in 2013. In 2017, it confiscated 1,102, an increase of 88 percent. Below are the Top 10 prisons where the phones were seized.

table.tableizer-table { font-size: 12px; border: 1px solid #CCC; font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; } .tableizer-table td { padding: 4px; margin: 3px; border: 1px solid #CCC; } .tableizer-table th { background-color: #000080; color: #FFF; font-weight: bold; } Institution 2017 Madison Correctional Institution 212 Mansfield Correctional Institution 151 North Central Correctional Institution 145 Richland Correctional Institution 134 Ross Correctional Institution 127 Lebanon Correctional Institution 109 Allen Oakwood Correctional Institution 83 Trumbull Correctional Institution 61 Toledo Correctional Institution 21 Chillicothe Correctional Institution 12 table.tableizer-table { font-size: 12px; border: 1px solid #FFF; font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; } .tableizer-table td { padding: 4px; margin: 3px; border: 1px #FFF; } .tableizer-table th { background-color: #FFF; color: #FFF; font-weight: bold; } table.tableizer-table { font-size: 12px; border: 1px solid #CCC; font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; } .tableizer-table td { padding: 4px; margin: 3px; border: 1px solid #CCC; } .tableizer-table th { background-color: #404040; color: #FFF; font-weight: bold; } Institution Total 2007 to 2017 Mansfield Correctional Institution 1,158 Richland Correctional Institution 922 Ross Correctional Institution 626 Allen Oakwood Correctional Institution 489 North Central Correctional Institution 419 Lake Erie Correctional Institution 410 Lebanon Correctional Institution 287 Madison Correctional Institution 266 Trumbull Correctional Institution 243 Toledo Correctional Institution 220

SOURCE: The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction

THE PLAIN DEALER

“Inmates have nothing more than time and ideas on their hands, and when you add a cellphone, that just adds so much to the problem,’’ said Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell.

“We would never give inmates a manual on how to commit crimes. But with a cellphone and access to Google, they have that. They have the world at their fingertips.’’

The milkman’s cellphones

In January, investigators discovered a smuggling ring at the Lebanon Correctional Institution in Warren County. Officers stopped a delivery truck driven by Ray Adams, who worked for United Dairy Farmers Inc., which provides milk products to the prison.

Buried in stacks of cartons were 30 containers filled with marijuana, tobacco and a dozen cellphones, authorities said. Prosecutors said Adams earned $200 to smuggle the items into the prison after an unidentified inmate had approached him.

He admitted making about $2,000 for his illegal deliveries, prosecutors said. It is unclear how many times he brought contraband into the facility. He pleaded guilty in March to a charge of smuggling drugs in Warren County Common Pleas Court, and he was later placed on probation for three years, based partly on the fact that he lacked a criminal record before the incident.

Because Adams smuggled marijuana, he was charged with a third-degree felony. Had he simply brought in cellphones, he would have faced a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Some law enforcement officers said state laws should be changed to provide for a tougher punishment for smuggling the devices.

“It should definitely be looked at, as far as penalties are concerned,’’ said Dennis Lowe, the leader of the Fairfield, Athens and Hocking Major Crimes Unit. “Phones are like currency in a prison.’’

Inmates caught possessing a cellphone often face administrative citations, which can mean a loss of privileges.

A federal judge gave Edward Bellman a far greater punishment.

Smuggling meth inside

In the early summer of 2017, Bellman, of Dayton, was in the middle of a two-year sentence in the Chillicothe prison for gun and drug possession.

Federal prosecutors said in court documents that Bellman and other inmates used smuggled cellphones to call Jon Christopher Birt, 51, who authorities said peddled meth and fentanyl from his home in Dayton. It is unclear how the men obtained the phones.

The inmates planned to have 2 ounces of methamphetamine delivered to the Chillicothe prison, where the inmates would divide the drug, according to the court documents. The documents said the prisoners had hoped to fetch $500 a gram for it from other inmates, or about 10 times more than the cost of the drug on the street.

What Bellman didn’t know is that FBI agents had been investigating Birt, and they listened in on a wiretap to calls from the inmates to Birt.

Bellman and another inmate gave Birt the name of a guard at the prison, James Barlage, 32, who agreed to pick up the drugs from Birt and smuggle them into the prison for cash, according to court documents.

It is unclear how the inmates arranged to pay for the drugs or for Barlage’s role. Troopers of the Ohio State Highway Patrol arrested Barlage after leaving Birt’s home on July 14 and seized methamphetamine, records show. They did not arrest Birt at the time, though they continued to listen to his calls.

Apparently unaware of Barlage’s arrest, another inmate, Mario Evans, used a second smuggled cellphone to try to obtain more methamphetamine from Birt. On July 18, troopers arrested the man Evans sent to pick up the drugs, according to court records.

The key players in the ring, Bellman, Birt, Evans and Barlage, pleaded guilty to federal drug charges.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Walter Rice in Dayton sentenced Birt to five-and-a-half years in prison; Bellman to five years; and Barlage to two years. Rice ordered Evans, 41, to serve 21 months, a term that will run at the same time as his 50-year sentence for shooting and wounding a police officer.

The case, authorities say, shows how easy it is for inmates to use cellphones to commit crimes while locked away.

“Cellphones are a real problem,’’ said Edward Latessa, the director of the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Cincinnati. “Charles Manson had a cellphone in prison. I don’t know if anyone has really found out how to deal with them.’’

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Ohio Prison population   The population of Ohio prisons has fluctuated for years. In November, the population dropped to its lowest point in years, 49,228. The state has tried to reduce the number of inmates, as it has urged judges to send nonviolent offenders to probation.   2017 50,195 2016 50,819 2015 50,427 2014 50,595 2013 50,230 2012 49,746 2011 50,439 2010 50,969 2009 50,939 2008 50,406 2007 49,367 SOURCE: The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction   The Plain Dealer  

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