Add cell phones to the plague of prison contraband

Cigarettes, drugs and booze used to drive a prison's black market economy. Today, state prison officials are trying to stop another item from being smuggled in -- cell phones.

So far this year, the N.C. Department of Correction has confiscated roughly 140 cell phones that were found on inmates or stashed on prison grounds. The phones are considered contraband, but they are coming in anyway.

They arrive by visitors who sneak them in, by inmates returning from work release and, in some cases, by staff looking to make a fast buck. A $25 phone can sell for as much as $500 behind bars, prison officials say, and inmates who have them can charge others for their use.

Prisons director Boyd Bennett said the cell phones can be used for all kinds of mayhem in and out of prison. They can be used to set up attacks on inmates and staff, coordinate escapes, harass victims and allow criminals to continue running criminal enterprises outside prison.

In one case, North Carolina prison officials say, a gang leader in one prison used a cell phone to call inmates at another prison to give them the go-ahead to attack another inmate.

"He was a player in the gang hierarchy and he said, 'Yeah, go ahead and cut this guy,' " said Zack Kendall, an investigator who handles security issues with the Division of Prisons.

It's a growing problem nationally.

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