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FCC commissioner visits Atlanta to discuss prison menace: cellphones

A member of the Federal Communications Commission came to Atlanta Thursday and met with state Corrections officials to discuss ways to combat contraband cellphones that wreak havoc across the prison system.

Corrections Commissioner Homer Bryson emerged from a meeting with FCC Commissioner Ajit

Pai and said they'd had a "productive" conversation. The two men and their staff discussed the issue at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson.

Pai, one of five FCC commissioners and an appointee of President Barack Obama, said he was drawn to the issue after reading press accounts of what prison inmates are doing with contraband cellphones: concocting scams on unsuspecting people, ordering hits of witnesses and intimidating possible witnesses and victims.

"There's no end to the inmates' creative spirits," Pai said, answering reporters' questions after his meeting with Bryson.

In past years, Gov. Nathan Deal has asked the FCC for permission to use "jamming" devices in state prisons that prevent cellphones from working. But concerns that the devices will thwart emergency calls in nearby areas and federal law make that a difficult proposition.

Instead, Pai said, he will return to Washington and try to restart conversations at the FCC to find other ways to combat cellphone use in the prison system.

Pai said he was surprised to learn that more than 7,000 cellphones had been confiscated in Georgia's prison system during the past fiscal year. "There are a lot of serious dangers to the public due to the illicit use of cellphones," he said.

Pai said he will see if the FCC can get wireless telephone providers together with companies that provide "managed access," which can block calls inside a prison system. Another option, Pai suggested, would be to make prison properties dead zones for cell phone signals.

The meeting on Thursday did not go into a lot of specifics on ways to combat the problem,

Bryson said. "Hopefully, it will kickstart some conversations."

State officials have struggled for years to combat the smuggling of cellphones into prison inmates. Inmates use them to talk to family and friends outside the prison walls and also to coordinate gang activity and commit crime inside the walls, prison officials have said.

The meeting between Bryson and Pai occurred less than a month after a federal grand jury in Atlanta indicted a dozen people for alleged crime rings run inside two state prisons where inmates used cellphones to coordinate activity. The defendants were accused of using the phones to broker drug deals, steal identities and order a hit on a government witness.

The two federal indictments alleged that prison inmates were assisted by prison employees on the inside and recently released inmates and girlfriends on the outside to commit their crimes.

An investigation by the FBI and GBI uncovered two unrelated crime rings -- one inside Valdosta State Prison, the other inside Phillips State Prison in Buford. The inmates bribed prison employees who brought cellphones inside the prison, then they used the phones to run drug rings and pull off identity-theft scams outside the prison, federal prosecutors said.

At Valdosta State Prison, inmate Donald Hinley routinely arranged to have phones, cigarettes,

liquor and drugs smuggled inside by prison employees, the indictment said. Among them was former guard Anekra Williams, prosecutors said.

On one occasion, Williams, who was also indicted, allegedly smuggled in prescription pain pills and methamphetamine to Hinley, who paid her a $500 bribe.

Hinley is already serving a life-without-parole sentence for a murder. He was convicted of the May 1, 1999, murder of Eugene "Sonny" Ashley in Long County during a robbery to get money for crack cocaine.

More than a decade later, while serving time inside the state prison in Valdosta, Hinley received help from Ruben "Flaco" Ruiz, William "Two Young" Matthews and Kansas "Guido" Bertollini, all of whom were granted parole last year. With their assistance, Hinley brokered significant drug deals in the Atlanta area and in other areas of Georgia, the indictment said.

It was Hinley who ordered the killing of an inmate he believed was cooperating with authorities, federal prosecutors said. Agents, who were made aware of the directive, moved the cooperating witness into protective custody before anything could happen.

The indictment involving Phillips State Prison accuses inmates Mims Morris, Johnathan "Turtle" Silvers and Adam "Scrap" Smith of engaging in a prison smuggling and fraud scheme. They were allegedly assisted by Charonda Edwards, a contract employee who once worked in the prison's kitchen and is now under indictment. She allegedly smuggled in phones, drugs and tobacco for inmates in exchange for payoffs.

Last year, from inside prison, Morris called a woman pretending to be a credit card fraud investigator, the indictment said. The woman gave him her Discover credit card number after Morris told her there were bogus charges on her card, prosecutors said. Morris then used the woman's credit card to transfer $2,200 to another credit card he owned, prosecutors said.

Morris is serving a life sentence for a 2008 murder in Putnam County. His father, Mims Morris Sr., is also serving a life sentence for the killing as well. The two men and a third man were convicted and sentenced to life terms for the beating death of Earl Eugene Gill, court records said.

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Bill Rankin covers criminal justice for the Enterprise team.