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Big business behind bars

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RIDGELAND, SC (WTOC) -

Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, "If you want total security, go to prison. There you're fed, clothed, given medical care; the only thing lacking, freedom."

However, in this digital world we live in, some may say inmates are just as free as the rest of us, connected to the outside world through cell phones.

According to prison officials, cell phones fuel the booming "contraband business" inside the barbed wire fences of just about every prison in the country.

"It is a major problem, and we battle that problem daily, daily," said LeVern Cohen, warden of Ridgeland Correctional Facility.

 Tobacco, marijuana, weapons, and more cell phones, delivered right to inmates' back yard.

 "[They] are using the cell phones to set up deals, to buy -- in order to get the contraband in," said Officer Edward Mole. "They're also using it for things like social networks - Facebook [and] Moco space."

With cell phones, convicted criminals enjoy many of the same freedoms as us on the outside do. However, those freedoms come at a higher cost. According to officers, they pay up to $200 for tobacco, up to $800 for a cell phone, and more than $1,000 for a smart phone.

"The better the phones get, the worse the problem is," said Robert Ward, Deputy Director of Operations for SC Department of Corrections.

And the more this prison economy grows.  

Ridgeland Correctional is one of the top five worst prisons in the state for contraband. Officers found more than $170,000 worth of contraband so far this year.

WTOC recieved an exclusive look as SC's Rapid Response team searched prisoners cells. They do this every month, but each visit is a surprise.

They didn't find any cell phones, but they did find shanks, which are pieces of metal shaped into deadly weapons.

Policing the cells and hallways are almost as dangerous as policing the streets, and contraband ups the stakes.

Every day, business partners on the outside cook up creative ways to deliver their products to customers on the inside.

"Footballs, tennis balls, wrapped up in camouflage tape – put in a sock dipped in cement and thrown over the fence," said Cohen.

The cement-covered phones look like rocks out in the yard.

But as inmates get creative, so do officials. They now have a new magnetic detector that can be used to find phones hidden in things like mattresses and even bodies.

"It indicates where the item is located in the mattress, whether it be any form of metal, cell phone – it will detect it and at that point we will open it up and search," said Maj. Gregory Wells.

The Rapid Response team has been using the device for a few months, and have had positive results.

Business has slowed down a bit, but it's still a bull market inside the prison. Demand is high, and the money driven entrepreneurs are willing to do just about anything to turn a quick profit paying the price further down the line.

"It's not making that person a better person, to go back out into society. It's making them a worse person, and what we want to bring a better person back into society," said Cohen.

Officials have tried jamming the cell signal, but the FCC won't let them, because cellular companies fear it will affect their legit customers near the prison. 

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