Confiscated cell phones were on display at a 2015 news conference after federal authorities alleged that inmates at Phillips State Prison and Valdosta State Prison used them to run a drug ring across the metro area. Cell phones remain a problem at Georgia prisons despite costly efforts to stop their use. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

At Georgia prisons, inmates use drones, apps to skirt security

Kevin Patterson is a lieutenant in the Ghost Face Gang. His arrest should have meant the end of his career trafficking methamphetamine and heroin throughout North Georgia for the Mexican cartel.

It wasn’t.

Instead, Patterson used a contraband cell phone to run his operation from Ware State Prison, authorities said. Patterson was busted after state and federal law enforcement, relying on a confidential source, recorded him directing the sale of tens of thousands of dollars in meth and heroin over three weeks in July 2015. How much he’d trafficked before that brief investigation isn’t known.

WATCHDOG: At an Atlanta federal prison camp, drugs, booze and ribs

For authorities, it was a rare win in an ongoing game of cat-and-mouse between prison guards and inmates smuggling in contraband.

As prisons spend millions of dollars scrambling to put in place better security measures, inmates - fueled by technology and relentless cunning - have found ways to work around them and continue their criminal enterprises from behind the razor wire.

Some prisoners have started using apps to access the internet so their calls cannot be intercepted. Drones now swoop over prison yards and drop packages for inmates to retrieve.

State Department of Corrections Commissioner Greg Dozier acknowledges it’s a battle his agency is losing and is unlikely ever to win because of the resourcefulness of inmates.

“We just want to stop it,” Dozier said. 

 Netting and Infra-red cameras

And it’s happening everywhere — in local jails as well as county and federal prisons nationwide.

Last year, officers seized 22,326 cell phones from inmates and visitors at all 67 Georgia correctional facilities, which include secure prisons and lower-level facilities. Ware State Prison, where Patterson was housed when he was directing drug sales in north Georgia, topped the list with 1,392 cell phones found. Dooly State Prison was responsible for 1,342 of them. Georgia officials don’t know how Patterson secured his cell phone but there are many ways inmates get them.

Kevin Bristol Patterson. Authorities say Patterson used a contraband cell phone to continue to run a drug operation from Ware State Prison. (Credit: Georgia Department of Corrections)

Low-paid correctional officers smuggle in cell phones for a price, despite the risk that they too could become inmates.

Friends and family throw packages over 12-foot-high prison fences. Prison officials are beginning to install netting — much like the screens that protect baseball fans from fly balls — 40 feet in height to stop deliveries that way.

Prison officials are fighting back.

Infra-red cameras have been installed to detect people approaching back fences. At Augusta State Medical Prison, for example, the cameras picked up two people. One of them tossed into the prison yard a package containing tobacco, rolling papers, a lighter, a quarter-pound of marijuana and 18 cell phones with chargers. A teenage boy was captured there but the woman with him got away. The boy’s mother, who was not at the prison with her son, left town when she learned he was arrested but was captured later and eventually convicted of two felonies.

But as authorities get better at addressing that problem, so do the inmates.

The prisoners are allegedly sneaking out through a hole in a fence and bringing back items like liquor, cigarettes and cellphones to sell to other prisoners.

The Department of Corrections spent $2.25 million to install technology at three prisons which captures cell phone signals and quickly drains phone batteries. But it only works when calls are attempted inside cell blocks. Inmates can still find corners where the blocking signal doesn’t reach. There are plans to put the system in a fourth prison, which will cost another $750,000. After that, the budget runs out.

Technology exists that would allow officials to jam the signals on a large scale, so even if the phones made it inside prison walls they wouldn’t work.

But authorities have been hampered by a Federal Communications Commission ban on the technology because it could also affect homes and businesses near prisons. Instead, correctional systems have come up with piecemeal approaches that are not as successful at solving the problem.

The Association of State Correctional Administrators this month asked the FCC to reconsider its prohibition.

“Unfortunately, current legal technologies designed to prevent contraband cellphone use are expensive and not one hundred percent effective. As long as there is a market for cellphones and a means to make calls from within prison walls, inmates and their accomplices will continue to find ways to beat current methods of detection and prevention,” ASCA President Leann Bertsch wrote in a letter this month to FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler.

The cost of putting in a system that would cover the entire area inside the prison fence and not affect homes and businesses nearby ranges from $2.7 million to $3.9 million per facility, according to DOC. 

Drone drops 

A relatively new problem is unmanned drones, which easily elude detection.

For the most part, prison administrators only know that a drone has come and gone because pieces of packages dropped from the sky are found stuck in fences or in prison yards, Dozier said.

Maryland State Police and prison officials says two men planned to usethis Yuneec Typhoon drone and controller to smuggle drugs, tobacco and pornography videos into the maximum-security Western Correctional Institution near Cumberland, Md., in 2014. (AP Photo/David Dishneau, File)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Still, in 2013 four people were arrested in Morgan in South Georgia after they used a drone to carry two pounds of tobacco, a cell phone and binoculars to the yard at Calhoun State Prison.

There is technology to address the drone problem but, like the cell phone technology, it’s expensive.

Oleg Vornik is chief executive of a company that markets anti-drone systems. The cost is $150,000 to $200,000 per year per prison, depending on the size of the facility and the approach taken.

Some will pick up the sound of a drone and alert prison officials. Other systems will force a drone to the ground or divert it, said Vornik, CEO of Drone Shield which initially focus on providing drones for events like the Boston Marathon. 

“We believe it’s a matter of time, that as prisons get more and more technology, criminals will begin taking measures to mask it,” Vornik said. 

  A lucrative business 

Even the threat of prison discipline or more years incarcerated isn’t a deterrent. It’s just a cost of doing business, experts say.

Clay Nix, deputy director of the Department of Corrections Office of Professional Standards, said some inmates have boasted of making $5,000 to $10,000 in a day peddling contraband cellphones, tobacco, marijuana and other drugs. They then use their profits to restock.

And rival gangs are willing to work together in prison “because there’s so much money to be made,” said Ricky Myrick, the assistant commissioner who oversees the operation of Georgia’s prisons, halfway houses and other facilities.  

And though technology allowed law enforcement to stop Patterson and his two co-defendants by intercepting their calls, the whole case was based on a tip from a confidential sources.  

This time, it worked.

In January, Patterson was sentenced to 18 years and four months in federal prison. Sinaloa Cartel member Alex Altamirano, who was also in a state prison at the time, was sentenced last August to 10 years in federal prison. Denis Pineda, a member of the East Side Locos on parole after serving time for a Florida drive-by shooting, was sentenced also last August to 12 years and 7 months in the federal system.

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