Thousands of illegal cellphones smuggled into Oklahoma prisons

(KTUL) -- The Dick Conner Correctional Facility in Hominy is surrounded by acres of empty land, but prisoners there are anything but cut off.

When it comes to cellphones, just about any inmate with money who wants one can get one.

“It gets nerve wracking sometimes, you know, is it ever going to end?” said Shawn Price, chief of security.

Price says they find all types of contraband when searching people, the perimeter and inmates. He says the most dangerous item an inmate can get their hands on is a cellphone.

Price and his fellow officers found 750 illegal cellphones in 2016. Statewide, the number of illegal phones behind bars jumps to around 4,000. Prison officials admit those are just the ones they know about.

“The rule of thumb is you’re usually getting maybe 10 to 15 percent of what’s coming in,” said Price.

Cellphones make their way into prisons any number of ways. Sometimes they're packed into footballs and basketballs and thrown over a fence.

Price says his officers have found phones stuffed in tires on a trailer, wrapped in grass and placed in a ditch and in packages sent through the mail.

Counting just tobacco and phones, Price says his facility's workers have collected about a half a million dollars worth of contraband (at prison yard value).

Nationally, prison guards have been caught bring in cellphones, but Dick Conner Warden Janet Dowling says not at her prison in Oklahoma.

“It puts everyone here at risk when you have staff that will compromise state law to do those types of things,” said Dowling.

Cellphones in the hands of inmates can be used to coordinate drug drops, let others know where corrections officers are, order hits on other inmates in different prisons and contact victims, Dowling says.

“The volume of what’s coming in at one time is increasing and the number of attempts is steadily increasing,” said Dowling.

Dowling says they can't jam the signal either because it's illegal.

With so many phones making it through security, prison officials have turned to the K9 program to help stop the problem.

Riley is a “cellphone dog.” He was rescued by the Department of Corrections and specifically trained to find cellphones. He’s also the only cellphone dog that has been certified by the Nation Police K9 Association.

“So Riley would be able to detect any type of cellphone?” we asked.

“(Yes.) We’ve done smart phones, flip phones, blackberry style,” said Eric Emblom, the Central Region Kennel Master.

When Riley and his handler, Derek Anderson, hit the block they’re ready for work.

“He’s a nightmare for inmates. They don’t know exactly what it is he’s smelling. They try to mask the odor with spices, wrapping up the cellphones,” said Anderson.

Riley has found about 100 phones in prisons. But it's not enough. It's a game the DOC is playing against inmates, and it's losing.

“You have times where you search and nothing is there,” said Emblom. “It’s the left over odor, you’re close, but your literally one minute, two minutes, 10 minutes behind.”

Back in Hominy, Price and his correctional officers are staying busy. A cellphone in the prison yard is worth four to five times more than what it is outside the fence.

“As long as there’s money to be made in it, they’re going to keep doing it,” said Price.

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