SC attorney general announces indictments connected to illegal cellphones in prisons

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Published: Nov. 21, 2023 at 10:52 AM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. — In new indictments announced Tuesday, South Carolina corrections officers are alleged to have tipped off inmates ahead of contraband searches, facilitated contraband trade, and even helped smuggle in illegal cellphones and drugs.

The State Grand Jury handed down indictments against nine people, stemming from three separate investigations at three different state prisons: Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia, and McCormick Correctional Institution in McCormick.

The defendants include former South Carolina Department of Corrections officers and employees, inmates, and alleged citizen co-conspirators living and working outside prison walls.

They now face 56 counts between them that could land some in prison for the rest of their lives.

For years, South Carolina Corrections Director Bryan Stirling and Attorney General Alan Wilson have been railing about the issue of illegal cellphones getting into inmates’ hands and pleading for more tools to stop it.

They said the series of new indictments shows just how dangerous this contraband is.

“The combination of public corruption and contraband cellphones has contributed to violent crimes, drug trafficking, child sex crimes, and other crimes being committed against our citizens,” Attorney General Alan Wilson said during a news conference Tuesday in Columbia.

Seven of those defendants appeared in court Tuesday morning in Columbia, where Circuit Court Judge Jocelyn Newman granted bond to five of them and denied it to two others determined to be flight risks or dangers to society.

Stirling was in court for those hearings and said this was a day he and other state leaders have been warning about for years.

“We had the largest RICO case in state history being run out of a prison. We’ve had suicides by a veteran. We’ve had a corrections officer shot at his house. We’ve been telling you this is a problem over and over again,” Stirling said.

Judge Newman denied bond to two defendants indicted for sexual exploitation and criminal conduct involving a three-year-old child.

According to investigators, Abbygale El-Dier of Greenville County sexually abused a child, recorded it on her cellphone, and sent it to an inmate with whom she had a relationship, Jacob Lance.

One prosecutor told the judge the heinous acts the investigation uncovered are some of the worst she has seen in her career.

“These are allegations, but I mean, I’ve seen a lot in my time as director of the Department of Corrections. Today was a day I will never forget, and I think everybody that was in court today probably feels the same way,” Stirling said.

Stirling has been asking the federal government for the ability to jam cellphone signals inside state prisons, a call Wilson has echoed.

But the Federal Communications Commission has been unwilling to grant it, faced with opposition from cellphone carriers.

“We tell people when we put these individuals in prison that we’re protecting society, we’re protecting you, and we didn’t because of the limitations that are put on us,” State Grand Jury Chief Prosecutor Creighton Waters said.

Short of that ability, Stirling believes the best option the Department of Corrections has is a pilot program he said has been successful at Lee Correctional Institution.

It allows SCDC to work with cellphone carriers to identify and disable illegal phones inside prisons.

They have been testing it at the Bishopville prison since late July, and in that time, SCDC reports nearly 800 phones have been identified and disabled, in a prison with just over 1,000 inmates.

Stirling has requested about $30 million in the next state budget to install that technology in every state prison.

You can watch the full conference below:

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