A cell phone helped put a hit on this man, now he's on a mission to get these 'weapons' out of SC prisons

Updated: Jul. 12, 2017 at 5:15 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - When a South Carolina corrections officer was attacked in his home and shot six times, doctors say he died twice on the operating table.

"[The shooter] actually stood over me and continued shooting me," Capt. Robert Johnson was told by doctors and investigators.

Johnson's memory at the scene is still blurry, but he said he blacked out and woke up to his chest bleeding. He remembers his wife quoted scripture over him.

Investigators say an inmate from Lee Correctional Institution ordered the hit on Johnson while in prison with a contraband cell phone. Johnson said the attack in his home is just one example of the harm prisoners can still do while incarcerated.

"I should have been dead," he says. "Dead."

Although it's been seven years since he was attacked in his Sumter home in March 2010, Johnson still uses a cane. Because of his extensive injuries from being shot at point-blank range, he walks a little differently than he did before the shooting. He breathes differently, too.

In his pocket, he totes bullets like those removed from his body.

"I carry these to show people that six of these hit me at 755 feet per second," Johnson said. "Per second. The last thing I remember is him bringing up probably the biggest barrel of a weapon I ever saw."

He believes the attack was coordinated by an inmate, who wanted revenge on him for intercepting a contraband package estimated to have been worth $50,000. It contained things like drugs and weapons, Johnson says those packages nearly got him killed.

"It boggles my mind," Johnson said. "Never in my mind did I think that the inmates could actually reach out and touch me from the prison. Never."

Johnson has shared his story time and again. He's now on a mission to get contraband and especially cell phones out of prisoners' hands. He said it's about officers' safety, but also about public safety beyond the prison walls.

"[Inmates] are doing things now that they never did before. This cell phone technology opens up a new dimension in criminal activity," he said.

Seven years since the attack on Johnson, cell phones still plague prisons. This year alone, there have been riots, officers assaulted, fires started, a drug ring discovered, and most recently, inmate Jimmy Causey's escape. Cell phones are believed to be at the root of all these incidents.

"We 100 percent know a cell phone was used, or multiple cell phones were used while he was incarcerated," Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said of the escapee in a recent news conference.

Stirling said a cell phone in the hands of an inmate can be just as powerful as any weapon.

"They continue their criminal ways from behind bars," he says.

Johnson believes it weighs on the minds of staff and the officers in charge, too.

"These officers know that at any moment, any moment, they can lose what little control they've got," Johnson says.

The Department of Corrections has released data detailing the contraband confiscated from inmates.

In the past three years, the number of cell phones and cell phone parts confiscated has grown, and the numbers recorded so far through June 30 of this year are on track to exceed the amount of contraband collected last.

Data shows that in 2014, there were 3,037 cell phones and cell phone parts collected. In 2015, there were 4,107 cell phones and parts collected. Last year, there were 7,240 collected. As of June 30th, 2017, there were 3,919 collected.

It's all smuggled in through a variety of ways. A lot of times, people throw packages of contraband over the prison fences. To put an end to that, Stirling has secured golf netting to be installed at 11 state prisons above the fences. At $7.65 million in taxpayer dollars, the netting will rise about 62 feet off the ground.

"We spend so much money that could be going to officer salaries, to help staffing, to education to help people re-enter society, but no," Stirling says. "We have to spend it to put up this netting around our institutions so we can stop these throw-overs."

"Prisons were designed as you can see, to keep people in and not to keep things out," he says.

But Stirling believes there's an easier fix the Federal Communications Commission just won't allow - the blocking of cell signals from transmitting through prison walls.

After the most recent incident believed to be linked to cell phone use, Governor Henry McMaster released statements he's joining the push for the FCC to jam the signal.

McMaster tweeted after Causey's escape and eventual capture in Texas, "Be assured: we are working diligently to persuade them otherwise," on the contraband issue, and "we intend to do whatever it takes to keep all South Carolinians safe."

In a video message, McMaster said: "As fast as we confiscate the phones, new ones are being smuggled in by drones or thrown in over the fences. The best way to end this threat is to jam, block, and disrupt the cell phone signal."

Johnson agrees. He's testified before the FCC to jam sell signal, using his battle for his life in March 2010 as an example of the danger inmates pose to the outside world, using the cell phones.

"There's no valid reason for a locked-up criminal to have access to a cell phone. None. Not to call 911. Not to call home. Absolutely none," Johnson testified in March 2017.

Stirling furthers his message that the block is needed because he says that even with the new, expensive nets, the problem of drones dropping contraband persists.

"Now, they're going to fly over the nets, so what do we do next? It's going to be more money, more tax dollars," Stirling says.

The Department of Corrections tells us there have been 14 incidents so far this year involving drones dropping contraband. So, the director is asking legislators for a new state law to help stop it.

Johnson has good reason to keep fighting. He's forever changed by the 2010 attack. He has unhealed wounds, regular surgeries, and irreparable organs.

Despite the pain, the spirit guiding him is strong. His Psalm 34 scripture bumper sticker reminds him of that.

"It says, 'Come and magnify the Lord with me. Let us praise his name together,'" Johnson quotes.

When asked if he considers himself a miracle, Johnson responds: "Yes, and I always say that what the Lord allows, He provides for."

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