MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Always a challenge for jailers, a steady flow of contraband has become an epidemic during the pandemic, according to Mobile County Metro Jail officials.
Warden Trey Oliver told FOX10 News that the jail had made progress in recent months toward bringing the problem under control. But he said a confluence of factors combined to make smuggling a bigger-than-normal problem over the past year and a half.
Inmates continually shift tactics to try to stay ahead of counter-measures, he said, but he added that one constant undergirds the challenge – an enormous profit motive.
“We know for a fact, through our intelligence unit, that inmates were making tens of thousands of dollars during the year and half of COVID,” he said.
Oliver said drugs, both street and prescription, remain a serious threat. But he added that cigarettes and cell phones rival drugs. A single cigarette, he said, goes for about $20 behind bars. And a cell phone can fetch between $1,500 and $2,000.
There are currently 49 inmates facing charges of promoting prison contraband. Eleven of them are accused murderers, including three facing capital charges.
On Thursday, David Seth Marble became the latest person to be arrested. Law enforcement authorities allege that he smuggled methamphetamine into the jail.
Oliver said it is like a game of cat and mouse trying to stay ahead of innovating prisoners and their schemes. One common tactic, he said, is to get friends and relatives to send items through the mail, disguised as correspondence from a lawyer’s office.
“They will create a piece of official-looking mail that is supposed to look like it’s coming from a law firm, ’cause that’s one of the only kind of pieces of mail that we’re not supposed to read coming into a jail,” he said. “But if it looks any bit, the least bit suspicious, we contact the law firm to confirm whether they did or did not send something to that particular inmate.”
Often, the warden said, the mail will contain paper saturated with a chemical. Inmates will find a way to ignite a spark and then smoke the substances, he said.
Oliver said helpers on the outside frequently toss bags of banned items over the fence to be gathered later, often by one of the 30 to 50 inmates a day who help keep the jail running by working jobs in the kitchen or cleaning the facility, he said. An inmate on trash duty easily can scoop up contraband from a well-timed toss and conceal it in a bin, Oliver said.
For all their ingenuity, Oliver said, the prisoners would not be able to smuggle without help – from the inside and outside.
Helpers on the outside will climb barbed-wire fences to make drops, or tie bags of cell phones, drugs or tools to ropes that inmates fashion out of bedsheets. Oliver showed FOX10 News the remnants of one bag of contraband that got caught in the barbed wire.
The warden said the jail has been installing reinforced barbed-wire traps to make it harder for inmates to pull up banned items. When inmates started kicking out the windows, he said, the jail installed metal mesh and gratings on the inside and outside.
The ongoing construction of a new sallyport that began about six months ago exacerbated the problem, the warden said. He said people will hop a small chain-link fence, hide amid the construction and then get banned items to people on the inside.
Oliver said deputies have been assigned to patrol the perimeter to try to intercept smuggling attempts
Occasionally, even employees help inmates, Oliver said. In April, a Mobile County grand jury indicted Taeric Montez Sims on charges that he accepted a $500 bribe while working as a corrections deputy to smuggle in a cell phone, chargers and batteries to a man convicted of murder.
Smuggled in a Burger King bag
Oliver said the jail has fired at least eight workers over the past couple of years – everyone from corrections officers to nurses to contractors working at the facility.
“A couple years ago, we had to fire an officer because he was given $500 to meet an inmate’s sister off site on his way to the job that morning. And the sister gave him a Burger King bag with a hamburger in it and an order french fries.”
When an inmate has 24 hours a day, seven days a week to figure something out, they’re pretty savvy at breaching some of our security measures.
Only it wasn’t just lunch. Oliver said the fast food bag also had a cell phone. They are in high demand because sanctioned inmate calls are under constant supervision.
“Once an individual gets a cell phone, they’re able to, you know, run their business interest without detection,” he said.
Oliver said inmates also use cell phones to bully relatives of other prisoners.
“What the thugs will do is they will bully the other inmates and then extort money through their families,” he said.
To combat that, Oliver said, the staff monitors innate accounts for signs of unusual deposits.
The warden said the jail has confiscated more than 2,000 cell phones over the past year and a half, a record number.
Overcrowding is an issue, too, Oliver said. The jail population has swelled to about 1,500 during the COVID-19 pandemic – in a facility designed for fewer than 1,200. The simple fact is, he said, it is impossible to watch all 1,500 inmates at all times.
“When an inmate has 24 hours a day, seven days a week to figure something out, they’re pretty savvy at breaching some of our security measures,” he said.
So far, Oliver said, smuggled guns have been rare. He recalled an incident in which a weapon made it into the jail. The Mobile County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team, assisted by dogs, swept the facility but did not locate it. Oliver said he believes the innate ditched it.
“Our biggest fear is a firearm coming in,” he said.