David Yander couldn’t be with his daughter when she gave birth in Florida several years ago, but he was able to celebrate the milestone with her by using a cell phone. He was an inmate in an Ohio prison at the time.
The Kentucky native who now lives in Dayton estimates that there is one cell phone for every five prisoners in the Ohio system. Inmates are not allowed to possess the devices, and the state has spent more than $300,000 in the past year to purchase equipment used to detect cell phones.
“Cell phones give inmates the ability to continue criminal activity from inside the prison,” said Lebanon Correctional Institution Warden Ernie Moore.
Traditional detection methods turned up 483 cell phones in Ohio prisons in 2013, but many more likely go undetected.
Yander, 41, says bootleg phones help prisoners stay in contact with their families.
“I was able to talk to my daughter while she was delivering; that is a memory for life,” said Yander, who was released from prison in November after serving 11 years for aggravated vehicular manslaughter. “We talk about it often. That bonded us even more.
“Inmates can still be fathers, they can still be husbands. The two visits a month, four visits a month, how can you still be a dad when most of the visiting hours are while your children are in school?”
The Department of Rehabilition and Correction is trying new communication initiatives for inmates — included monitored emails and video chats — but cell phones remain off-limits.
Moore’s concern about hidden phones is supported by the recent kidnapping of a North Carolina prosecutor’s father. The botched abduction — the prosecutor was the target — was orchestrated by an inmate using a cell phone. The FBI rescued the man in Georgia.
The new CellSense cellular portable detection scanners purchased by the state can be used in a variety of locations in the prison system. They are about 6 feet high and 5 inches in diameter with electronic sensors rising above the battery-powered base unit.
The devices are deployed in prison hallways when inmates are headed to meals or other activities. Inmates must line up and walk past a detector. When a red light flashes atop the pole, a corrections officer administers a patdown.
The state spent $311,632 for the 33 units, which are used in the state’s 28 prison facilities and four regional parole offices. One also will be available for use by the Special Tactics and Response team.
Other security changes in the prison system — which houses more than 50,000 inmates — include the installation of thermal cameras and higher fencing around the perimeter at some locations, plus increased patrols outside of prison grounds.
These measures have been taken to combat the ingenuity of prisoners and their visitors.
“You would be amazed at some of the stuff these guys come up with,” said David D. Webster, a longtime corrections officers.
Popular smuggling methods include using books and hefty legal documents with sections cut out to hold a phone. Webster said smuggling problems increased as cell phones began to get smaller.
One visitor to the Lebanon prison was caught with a phone inside a hidden compartment in their shoe. The exchange was discovered when he was observed trading shoes with an inmate.
Phones and other contraband also have been found after being tossed over the perimeter fence — sometimes in padded footballs or tennis balls — or dropped into a trash can in the visiting area.
An inmate found possessing a cell phone faces disciplinary action. People on the outside can face criminal charges for attempting to bring contraband into a prison.
Before the cell phone detectors were added to the state’s security arsenal, the system relied heavily on traditional methods, included K-9 units. Dyna, a 3-year-old Dutch Shepherd, is based at the two Warren County facilities. Investigator Mark Stegemoller continues to work with the dog to find the most common types of contraband, including cell phones, drugs and tobacco.
Stegemoller said the dog alerts him to the batteries inside cell phones, which give off a very slight odor.
“Their senses are 300 times stronger than ours when it comes to smelling,” said Stegemoller, who added that the inmates are aware of the dog, but never know where Dyna will be working.
Not only do cell phones pose an immediate security risk, said Moore, they make it possible for inmates to threaten crime victims. He said when a criminal is sent to prison the victim expects that they are safe.
“Cell phones give that inmate the ability to continue victimization, whether it is through harassing phone calls or other ways,” Moore said.
Inmates in some states have even flaunted their cell phone access by posting videos on YouTube and Facebook.
The prison system is attempting to give inmates some options for communicating legally. A recently installed system in the Lebanon facility allows inmates to use a computer located near their cells to send monitored emails and make scheduled video visits with family members.
The video chats, which cost $9.90 for 30 minutes, are watched closely by authorities in the same manner as in-person visits. There also is a fee for sending emails.
Yander thinks the video visits will help, but he doubts the state will win its war on cell phones. He said smuggling phones into prisons is a lucrative business, fetching $500 or more per phone.
“I made sure that pretty much the entire time I was in prison I had access to a cell phone,” he said.