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Unprecedented sting operation targets contraband in S.C. prisons as part of zero tolerance campaign

As they arrived for evening shift change, all employees at prisons across South Carolina were stopped and their cars were searched for contraband


AP Photo/Sean Rayford

By Ted Clifford
The State

COLUMBIA, S.C. — On Nov. 6 and 8, law enforcement across South Carolina launched an unprecedented sting operation. As they arrived for evening shift change, all employees at prisons across South Carolina were stopped and their cars were searched for contraband.

The targets were items like tobacco, drugs and especially cell phones — staples of a black market economy that exists inside of South Carolina’s prisons.

“This is a zero tolerance campaign,” said South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling . “We’re not going to put up with staff bringing contraband in, we’re not going to put up with anybody trying to fly it in via drone, throw it over, sneak it in and send it in in the mail.”

The operation was brought on following a series of arrests of staff members at Lee Correctional Institution after it was discovered that a Simpsonville mother, Abbygale Alexandria El-Dier, was allegedly sending videos of her molesting her 4-year-old daughter to an inmate in the prison.

In August, El-Dier, 24, was arrested and charged with criminal sexual conduct with a minor and sexual exploitation of a minor following an investigation by the Simpsonville Police Department and the Department of Corrections inspector general.

Three weeks later, on Sept. 7 , officers with the inspector general led a surprise search of the prison. After taking over the control room, Stirling said, officers searched the prison for contraband, uncovering drugs, weapons and phones. Two employees — a longtime food service supervisor, Brian Keely , and Lieutenant Brittany Welch — were arrested in the sweep.

Evidence on Keely’s phone allegedly showed him making contraband deals with inmates and he reportedly had cell phones and drugs hidden inside of his cafeteria office. Welch, who had been with the Department of Corrections for six years, was accused of tipping inmates off about contraband searches, allowing inmates to share weapons and even holding onto weapons for them. She was charged with misconduct in office and obstruction of justice.

Corrections officials find themselves locked in a cat-and-mouse game against inmates and criminal organizations, Stirling said. But as officials have hardened prisons against many avenues for contraband, staff remain the main point of vulnerability.

“We’re at the point where the only way you’re anything in is through dirty staff,” Stirling said in a briefing before the operations.

Between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Wednesday night , staff arriving for the start of their shift at the Department of Corrections’ sprawling Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia were directed off of the road and into a disused fueling station.

A search was then conducted by law enforcement from the Department of Corrections Office of the Inspector General , Richland County Sheriff’s Department, Columbia Police Department and Forest Acres Police Department.

As the sun set, trained K-9s sniffed around vehicles while officers checked the driver’s IDs. The cars and their drivers were monitored by newly installed 360 degree cameras and small drones piloted by Department of Corrections staff. If the dogs “alerted,” the cars were directed off to the side where they were hand searched by officers.

“I’ve been here 42 years and I’ve never had this happen,” said one employee, shaking his head as Echo, an 80-pound German Shepherd padded around his black minivan, sniffing in the wheel wells.

“There’s a first time for everything,” said the officer reviewing his ID.

On Wednesday night, this scene was being repeated at all prisons to the west of Columbia.

Roughly 160 cars were searched at the Broad River complex, which includes four prisons run by the Department of Corrections. Among them are two women’s facilities and the Kirkland Correctional Institution, the first stop for all new inmates in the state system. It also contains the Broad River Correctional Institution, home to South Carolina’s death row.

On Wednesday night, K-9 units “alerted” on 13 cars, which were then manually searched by sheriff’s deputies and police officers.

As darkness fell and bats began to flutter overhead, officers diligently searched cars by flashlight. They rifled through bags, popped open the hoods of cars, knocked on side panels looking for hidden compartments and opened containers, sniffing the liquid inside.

Some of the staff members looked embarrassed at the mess in their cars, but the scene at Broad River was efficient and professional. Department of Corrections human resource employees were present at the scene, and all 13 staff members who were stopped will be required to be drug tested, department officials said.

There were no arrests made Wednesday night at Broad River. “We’re very grateful for that,” said department spokesperson, Chrysti Shain.

One warning citation was issued to a contract nurse by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department after they discovered a “marijuana roach” in her car, according to the Department of Corrections.

At the Tyger River Correctional Institution in Enoree, one summons was issued to a truck driver for simple possession of marijuana. These numbers were in line with Monday’s sweep, which targeted facilities east of Columbia.

While officers were ordered not to chase anyone who turned around, they would be subject to a drug test and possible disciplinary action, department officials said. Nine employees at prisons in the Lowcountry drove away from the search, but none tested positive for drugs, according to Stirling.

Employees at Wellpath, a private company contracted to provide health care services to inmates at the Broad River prisons were not searched Wednesday.

“I’m hoping we’re not going to see a lot, I’m hoping the message has gotten out... The message here to folks is ‘don’t come in with contraband,’” Stirling said. “The vast, vast majority of folks, just like anything else, do the right thing. It’s the folks that don’t do the right thing that endanger the prisoners, they endanger the staff.”

The war on contraband

For every step the department took to prevent contraband, inmates, gangs and corrupt staff members found a new way to bring in illicit items.

In August this year, Stirling tweeted a picture of a cake that a newly hired employee had hollowed out and used to smuggle in tobacco products and a cell phone. In October, a nursing supervisor at Broad River was charged after she allegedly brought a phone to an inmate.

The motivation for staff is simple, Stirling said: Money. A cell phone can be sold for as much as $6,000 inside of prison, according to Corrections officials. The gang-dominated trade in drugs and phones generates hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars.

Contraband, especially cell phones, “empowers the gangs, it gives them the ability to make money while they’re inside,” Stirling said. “It can make it dangerous not only for the folks who are incarcerated, it makes it dangerous for the staff, but it makes it dangerous for the citizens of South Carolina.”

While drugs can fuel an underground economy inside of prison and make it hard for inmates to rehabilitate themselves — Stirling estimated that 30% to 40% of inmates who enter prison in South Carolina are addicted to drugs — cell phones have proven particularly dangerous both inside and outside of the prison.

From 2015 to 2018, inmates in South Carolina prisons ran an elaborate sexual extortion scheme targeting members of the military. The scheme targeted around 440 members of the military, who were tricked into believing that they had been exchanging nude images with an underage girl. By pretending to be the girl’s parents, inmates were able to extort more than $560,000 from their victims.

One victim, 24-year-old Army veteran Jared Johns , killed himself after being ensnared in the scam.

The Department of Corrections has waged their war on contraband on many fronts, both cutting edge and low tech.

To prevent what Stirling described as nightly attempts by drones to drop contraband over prison walls, the department has invested in sophisticated technologies to detect and track the path of the drones that drop contraband over prison walls. They have also purchased their own fleet of drones.

But one simple innovation — a 50-foot high net erected around all medium and maximum security prisons — was installed after Stirling drove past a driving range and saw the netting that was put up to contain stray golf balls.

In July the department began testing out a long anticipated program to disable targeted cell phones in state prisons. While state entities are forbidden by federal law from “jamming” cell signals, the new technology allows Corrections officials to identify cell phone signals inside of prison and then disable specific, unauthorized devices. Because the technology targets the device itself, inmates can’t get around the system by changing carriers.

A test of this system at Lee Correctional Institution has resulted in 800 phones being disabled since July. Stirling said that he plans to ask the South Carolina General assembly for $32 million to roll out the system state wide.

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