Taylor Mirfendereski | WCPO
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Families, victims targeted by Indiana state prisoners with illegal phones

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INDIANAPOLIS -- State prison inmates have started using smuggled cell phones to harass people on the outside, including victims of stalking and violent crimes such as rape, with state prison workers telling investigators from WCPO sister station WRTV they’re receiving new complaints about inmate calls every couple of weeks.

An Indianapolis family reported getting hundreds of calls at all hours of the night, as one inmate threatened to kill them and burn down their home.

"It has gotten to me.  I'm more or less in fear for my life," said the father in the family, who requested anonymity out of safety concerns.

"I'm sick of it, and I wish the justice system would do something about it! And it seems like they're not doing a darn thing about it," he said.

WRTV investigators reviewed the family's phone bill, which topped 97 pages, showing pages of calls after 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. some days. The inmate had previously dated the family's daughter, and was apparently upset that her parents were trying to stop his phone calls to the 18-year-old.

The teen’s mother said, "It's just like we're being beat up on, is what it feels like, and we feel like we can't get any protection from that."

Both parents said the inmate used many of his calls from inside his cell to manipulate and continue his control over the daughter, despite being behind bars.

"I feel like … (we're) in danger from the time you go to sleep at night 'til waking up in the morning.  It's not right," said the mother, who also requested that her identity be protected.

The couple called the warden at a contract prison in Plainfield known as the Short Term Offender (STOP) facility, where the inmate was locked up.  A sweep of his cell located a cell phone, but the family was shocked to begin receiving new calls less than 24 hours later.  

The new round of calls was even more threatening, the couple said, as the inmate grew furious that they were causing him to be caught with phones.

"There's no telling what's going to happen next," said the father.

The Indiana Department of Correction ended up transferring robbery convict Zachary Witty, 27, of Indianapolis, to a different lockup in New Castle after the calls resumed.

Doug Garrison, a prison system spokesman, said Witty was only caught with a phone once, but he apparently got access to another phone after getting caught the first time.

He said prison leaders reacted to the family's complaint in a hurry, and he said the inmate was punished with a loss of prison privileges.

"We feel, in the Department of Correction, not defensive at all about the fact that, yes, phones are still making it in, but we're taking immense efforts to try to stop it," said Garrison. "We're not turning our head or keeping our head in the sand about it."

Prison records provided to the WRTV investigators show more than 905 cellphones located or confiscated inside Indiana prisons so far this year. 

There were 2,500 illegal cellphones found in 2012 and 2,450 phones in 2011.

Duane Alsip, the assistant superintendent for operations at the maximum security Pendleton Correctional Facility, admitted that a new complaint is filed "every week or two" from someone on the outside who reports that a prisoner is contacting them.

He said many are ex-girlfriends or the new romantic interest of a prisoner's ex-girlfriend.

Alsip said each complaint results in a fast shakedown of the offender's cell.  If a phone is found, the offender can be placed in isolation or he could lose some of his "good time credit," resulting in a longer stay behind bars.

Alsip said a new law allows offenders to be charged with a crime if they are found with a phone, but he indicated that prosecutors are usually unwilling to file those charges against hardened crooks who are already serving long sentences.

K-9 Team Attacks the Trend

Prison system leaders told WRTV investigators that they are sending specially trained dogs to sniff for cellphones every day throughout the state.

While the Pendleton prison was not involved with the inmate who threatened the Indianapolis family, prison leaders allowed WRTV investigators camera crews to watch their K-9 teams in action during one recent sweep.  As inmates were eating lunch in a different part of the maximum security lockup, dogs were brought into E-Block of what is called "J Cell House."

After sweeping several cells and finding no smuggled cell phones, K-9 handlers began a training exercise by stuffing an actual cell phone under an inmate's bunk pillow. The phone had previously been confiscated during a cell shakedown, the handlers said, and cameras were rolling as the dogs sniffed around the toilet, sink, cupboard and bed to quickly locate the phone.

Lt. D. J. Mockler, field commander for the Pendleton prison, said K-9 teams can locate a phone that is not powered on, and they often find phones inside food containers in the cell.

"They're getting pretty inventive on where they hide this stuff," he said.

He said phones have been found buried inside carved up televisions and electric fans.  Dogs have also found phones inside full coffee jars and even tucked into peanut butter jars.

"In with food is one of the more popular places," he said. "Yeah, it's kind of surprising sometimes.”

Pendleton prison leaders said one dog is routinely stationed in the prison yard, where inmates walk between buildings.  Another dog is stationed at the "back gate" where supplies are trucked in and inspected.

During the recent visit by WRTV investigators, prison brass said they had just become aware of as many as 10 cellphones coming in on a pallet full of supplies that had been trucked into the facility.  A K-9 sniffed and indicated that cellphones had just been removed from a plastic bag that had been torn open inside one of the pallets. The phones were gone by the time it was discovered.

Pendleton’s superintendent, Dushan Zatecky, said there were no plans to lock down the facility. Instead, he said the immediate area was locked and certain housing units were searched.

When asked why he wouldn't lock down the entire prison since cellphones are admittedly a security threat, Zatecky told WRTV investigators such a lockdown would only be initiated for a weapon known to have made it into the facility.

Zatecky said smart phones, which can access the Internet, are worth as much as $3,900 on the inside. Inmates use commissary accounts to pay other inmates, or they sometimes arrange for relatives to pay relatives on the outside, prison workers said.

A camera typically adds $500 worth of value to a black market cellphone, said the superintendent.

Zatecky said there was a "50-50" split between inmates using cellphones for simple calling loved ones and those using phones to commit crimes or harass their crime victims.

"They're not going to pay $1500 just to call their grandma," said Zatecky.

Convicts and Others Getting Caught

Prison system rules provide for a loss of visitation rights when offenders are caught with a cellphone or other contraband.

In the first offense, a convict loses six months' worth of "contact visits," where inmates typically sit across a table and are allowed to hug their visitor.

A second offense means a prisoner is barred from having contact visits for a full year, while a third offense means the offender is never allowed another visitor.

In addition to losing good time credits, which can add more time on their prison stay, prison workers said inmates can have restrictions placed on their commissary spending accounts.

In December 2011, a 59-year-old corrections officer  Wanda Strickler was caught smuggling a phone and charger into the prison.  After a metal detector alarm sounded, she was detained and taken to a medical facility where X-rays found the phone hidden in a body cavity. Prison leaders say she was convicted of smuggling and became an inmate herself with a five-year prison term.

In January, corrections officer Richard Rice, 47, was caught smuggling a phone and charger into the New Castle prison.

In March, federal investigators clamped down on a state prison inmate who was caught on two separate occasions using a smuggled cell phone to orchestrate drug dealing on the outside.

In another case, federal prison sentences were handed down Monday for 13 inmates caught arranging drug sales using cell phones inside Indiana prisons. The top federal prosecutor for Indianapolis said that a corrections officer helped to smuggle cell phones to the inmates in that ring.

Visitors have also been arrested, including a woman who was caught with a cellphone stuffed into her hair.

Prison staff said some people have also been spotted tossing cellphones over the wall and into recreation yard areas for inmates to pick up later.

Cellphones Lead to Violence

Domestic violence and rape crisis counselors said they are now warning crime victims that locked up convicts are calling and posting harassing messages on social media using smuggled cellphones.

"A prisoner may have the opportunity to call the victim and that is, of course, something that our survivors don't want to have. They don't want to be re-victimized," said Melinda Mains, with The Julian Center of Indianapolis.

In the past, crime victims have been able to avoid opening mail or taking phone calls from prison phone numbers, but with cellphones, Mains said it becomes easier for a convict to reach someone involved with their case.

"We know that technology and the  access to technology in general gives people more options to try to victimize someone, and so whether  it's through Facebook or for access through the prison through the cellphones, every time there's more technology available, there's another chance to victimize someone," said Mains.

The Julian Center provided shelter and counseling for 6,841 women and children in 2012.

Mains said the recovery process can be knocked off track by a convict calling with threats, or even calling in hopes of reconciling once their prison term is finished.

"For our clients, that can be dangerous because that time of reconciliation may lead then to an additional time of victimization in the future,” Mains said.

Prison leaders told WRTV investigators they can easily envision an inmate using a phone to arrange violence on the outside. In one 2011 case, 35-year-old inmate Daniel Dewitt was beaten to death by fellow inmates, and prison investigators found out the hit was orchestrated by a fellow inmate who used a smuggled cell phone.

For the Indianapolis father who told WRTV investigators his family was threatened, that sort of violence is terrifying.

The calls stopped when Witty was moved to New Castle, but both parents said they're afraid the calls could resume at any moment.

The father said, "What if he makes a phone call and puts a hit out on one of us?"

"It's just irritating that the system doesn't seem like they want to do anything about it," he said.

Copyright 2014 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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