Steve Rogers

About Steve Rogers

Assistant News Director/Assignment Editor; degree in finance and administration from Yale University; 35 years experience in journalism.

State Steps Up Prison Contraband Crackdown

JACKSON – The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) has intensified efforts to keep illegal cell phones, drugs, tobacco and other contraband out of prisoners’ hands.

Netting, body scanners and monthly searches of entire prisons (state, private and regional) have been added to a growing list of preventive measures to ensure the safety of staff and inmates.

The agency also is expanding a system that reduces illegal cell phone usage to include all three state prisons, and has banned watches.

“We are in a new era where people will use any means to get contraband into prisons,” Commissioner Christopher B. Epps said. “Therefore, we must think outside the box. Nothing good comes from contraband being in the hands of inmates.”

Epps said never in his 32 years in corrections did he think he would have to worry about cell phones, chargers and tobacco being thrown over security fences. “But that is what we are dealing with today,” he said.

After many sleepless nights of worrying about how to stop items from being tossed over security perimeter fences, Epps said he decided to contract with a netting manufacturer to put a barrier around vulnerable spots at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF) in Rankin County.

New Jersey-based Tex-Nex Inc. installed a mile of 40-foot high netting last year at CMCF.

The company recently completed a netting job at Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, and is expected to install netting at the three other private prisons (East Mississippi Correctional Facility in Meridian, Walnut Grove Correctional Facility in Walnut Grove and Marshall County Correctional Facility in Holly Springs), and four units (25, 26, 28 and 29) at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman (MSP).

Installing the netting is costing the agency $1.3 million.

Mississippi is the first state to use netting all the way around a correctional facility on such a large scale, said Tex-Net Inc.’s vice president Annette Scarperia. CMCF is the benchmark for anti-contraband netting, she said.

Mississippi also was first in using the Managed Access System to reduce illegal cell phone usage. Launched in August 2010 at Parchman, the system intercepts all incoming and outgoing cell phone signals and allows prison authorities to manage calls that are not allowed and those that are.

The system was installed at South Mississippi Correctional Institution (SMCI) in Greene County last year, and plans are under way to put it at CMCF in the coming months.

Since its initial installation, the system has blocked 5,917,125 unauthorized cell phone calls and texts.

However, no technology is perfect, Epps said. Recently, the department learned that the system was down at MSP. The outage was weather-related. The system has since resumed working.

“Keeping cell phones out of the hands of inmates is a never-ending battle,” Epps said. “While we are doing all we can, there are some inmates who are getting on Facebook or who are sending out cell phone pictures. When we catch them with cell phones or any cell phone component, they are placed in a zero privilege unit where they lose six months of earned time.”

Preventing cell phones or any other contraband from ever reaching inmates is the department’s goal, Epps said. That’s why MDOC started using 17 body scanners on Dec. 1 at the three state prisons and the four private prisons.

Neither staff nor visitors should fear the Rapiscan full body X-Ray scanners because of the image projected or the amount of radiation exposure, Epps said.

The image does not show the genitals of the person being scanned, he said. And, as far as radiation exposure level, Epps said, the American College of Radiology has determined that a person would have to receive more than 1,000 scans a year to be exposed to an amount equal to one chest X-ray.

“The health and privacy concerns of MDOC employees and visitors are important to me,” Epps said. “But the scan is safe for all persons, regardless of age, sex or medical conditions.”

The netting, body scanners and increased searches are already paying off, Epps said. Other MDOC efforts to rid the prisons of cell phones and other contraband include:

· Weekly searches for WiFi Internet signals at all prisons

· Boss Chair “body cavity detection system”

· K-9 cell phone detector dogs

· Hand Wand metal detectors

· Walk-through metal detection systems

“I will be dumbfounded if all these measures don’t slow or drastically reduce cell phones and other contraband in our prisons,” Epps said. “I lose a lot of sleep worrying about cell phones. We have proof that they have been used in escapes, to put hits out on people, and for other criminal activities. It’s a bad situation with these cell phones.”

Introduction of contraband into a correctional facility is punishable by three to 15 years in prison, a maximum $25,000 fine, or both. Conspiracy to introduce contraband carries up to a $5,000 fine, five years imprisonment, or both.