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Cellphones smuggled into prisons alarm state officials
Preventing inmates from access on work detail is difficult
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The Hall County Correctional Institute has encountered its share of what state officials call an "epidemic" of illegal cellphones being smuggled into Georgia prisons.

In the past three months, 39 phones or phone devices have been confiscated at the county facility.

Not all of those confiscations have come from inside the walls, though. Some have been confiscated on job sites while inmates are participating in the work release program.

"It causes us issues as far as the contraband of the cellphones in ways that the inmates utilize those to communicate with people on the outside," Warden Avery Niles said.

An inmate proven to have a phone or similar device can face charges for felony possession of contraband, which can tack on five years to their sentence.

During the three months in which the devices were discovered in Hall, 12 arrest warrants were issued for those involved.

State Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens told state lawmakers Wednesday that prison officials had confiscated more than 8,500 phones over the last 18 months. He said 330 civilians and 63 staff members were charged with trying to smuggle contraband inside prisons, and most involved cellphones.

Smugglers have gone to great lengths. He said prison officials in Phillips State Prison in Buford found a dead cat stuffed with eight phones that someone had tried to throw into the prison.

The Hall County Jail has not had many issues of cellphones smuggling, said Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks with the Hall County Sheriff's Office.

Wilbanks said jail officials confiscate one or two cellphones each year at the most.

The most effective way to prevent the phones from entering the jail is by properly searching inmates when they enter, Wilbanks said.

"It's just a matter or ensuring that the officers are very diligent in their searches," he said. "Inmates are always coming up with new ways to smuggle things, and that's a training issue for us. We have to make sure our jail officers are always on top of what the latest trends are and that they remain diligent when they're conducting their searches."

Niles agreed searching inmates is the most effective tool, but preventing them from accessing phones while on work detail is more difficult.

"We can shake the inmates down, we can strip search them coming in on details, but my inmates actually go outside the wire and perform a service in Hall County," he said. "Chances are, whoever the loved ones are, they are dropping them off at those sites and somehow they smuggle them inside the prison."

Many of the cellphones discovered within the jail were used to talk with a girlfriend or wife, Wilbanks said.

However, Owens told lawmakers prison inmates are using them to conduct illegal activity.

"It's about gangs, power and money," he said.

The state pays the Hall facility $20 per day per inmate to house state inmates, which account for 160 of the 240 incarcerated there. The remaining are Hall County inmates. The institute provides the county with a daily workforce of 40 to 50 inmates for various departments.

"We don't have a gang problem within our facility, but we do house inmates throughout the state, so whatever means that they're utilizing the phones for is illegal activity," Niles said.

Another way to prevent cellphone use in prison is by blocking the signal. But that's a decision beyond the control of Niles and other wardens.

"I don't know if there is a way to prevent them. You can prevent the usage of the cellphones inside the prison by putting some kind of jammer or device that will block that phone's signal," Niles said.

Associated Press contributed to this report