The assassin broke through the front door shouting “police” as Capt. Robert Johnson of Bishopville, S.C. was getting ready for work early in the morning March 5, 2010.
Johnson, a prison guard at the Lee Correctional Institution (LCI), immediately knew two things: He had to get the assassin’s attention in order to protect his wife — sleeping quietly in the nearby bedroom — and the hit was undoubtedly connected to a strange visitor he encountered the evening prior.
“I instantly knew this was a hit,” Johnson explained in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation. “I came out of the bathroom and yelled to try and draw the guy away from the bedroom ’cause my wife was in there. I drew him to me.”
His diversion plan worked. The assassin came down the hallway and tussled with him, while his wife was able to escape to the front yard. But during the struggle, the attacker raised his gun and fired six times into Johnson’s stomach and chest.
The hit was connected to the massive influx of contraband cellphones in Johnson’s prison, where he’d worked for 15 years. Prisoners smuggle these phones into the correctional facilities so inmates running gang-related activities can still call the shots on the outside. They put them in inmates’ rectums, hollowed-out Bibles, or footballs thrown over a fence, bandages and prosthetic legs, and anything else they can think of to get the phone to the inside.
The problem is quickly becoming pervasive in America’s prison system, and regulators are starting to catch on. But as the bureaucratic processes move at a snail’s pace, corrections officers like Johnson have become targets for hitmen.
“A couple bullets went through me and landed on the floor,” Johnson said. “So he must have been standing over me shooting me, that’s how much he wanted me dead.”
An inmate at LCI coordinated the hit through a smuggled cellphone. He targeted Johnson because he was responsible for the detection and seizure of contraband at the prison. Johnson confiscated more than 5,000 illegal cellphones during his career, leaning on his 23 years of military intelligence experience.
After the assassin fled the crime scene, Johnson’s wife returned and called 911.
“I asked if I had to go the hospital,” Johnson recalled. “She said, ‘Of course, dummy.’” The two of them began reciting scripture together as they waited for help to arrive.
In transit to the hospital, Johnson told emergency responders he recognized the assassin as an ex-inmate who had been released from LCI just a few months before.
“The doctor said I was literally dead when I got off the helicopter,” he said, referring to his transfer to a trauma center. “Doctors thought I was going to die.”
While he doesn’t mind retelling the story, Johnson said he is still haunted by the beeping noises from the hospital room. “They gave me 63 units of blood,” he told TheDCNF. “They said I bled out three times and died on the operating table twice.”
Doctors placed Johnson in a drug-induced coma for two weeks, and told his wife there was very little hope he would survive.
The night before that fateful morning, Johnson recalls a man approaching his front door and asking for a “jump” to his car, which he claimed had a dead battery. Johnson didn’t go outside, and communicated with the man through his window. He had a personal rule of thumb not to leave the house after 9 p.m — an apt suspicion heightened by inklings of a potential hit he received from some of the inmates he looked over.
“I call them good citizens,” Johnson told TheDCNF. “They said ‘there’s a hit on you.’ The warden got a letter from an unknown inmate that there was a hit on me. So I took it seriously.”
While Johnson’s story is remarkable, it isn’t uncommon.
An inmate from Louisiana who escaped prison at the end of July is suspected of murdering the assistant warden’s daughter right after he slipped away. Police eventually shot the prisoner dead, but not before he completed the hit, which was allegedly coordinated through a contraband cellphone.
And there are more examples. In Georgia, a gang leader for the Sex Money Murder crew, a subsidiary of the infamous Bloods, ordered a murder of a baby from inside the prison. In April of 2014, nine people were charged in North Carolina for successfully organizing the kidnapping of a prosecutor’s father. In yet another instance, a 29-year-old man was charged for shooting a correctional officer while she was in her car. Through a contraband cellphone, an inmate directed the assassin within the local prison to murder the law enforcement agent.
Johnson says a lot of prison department leaders either don’t feel comfortable admitting they can’t control the criminal enterprises that occur within the confines of their prison, or fear violent retaliation. Some, though, aren’t so headstrong or worried.
Jon Ozmint, the former director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections from 2003 to 2011, said he’s been trying to persuade U.S. officials to take the problem seriously for years. There have been some formal meetings to discuss the issue, like a Commerce, Science, and Transportation Senate Committee hearing in 2009, but none have led to materialization of official policy.
“I was there in the hospital when his [Johnson’s] wife came out covered in blood, an innocent man we all presumed was killed because of an illegal cellphone,” Ozmint told TheDCNF in an interview. “We were one of the first states to file with the [Federal Communications Commission] on this issue. We were the first administration to bring contraband cellphones to the forefront.”
Ozmint was appointed by Republican Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who was serving as the state’s governor at the time. A large portion of the work during their tenures, which almost perfectly coincided, was to decipher ways to decrease contraband cellphones in the state’s prisons.
“I’m not a law and order kind of guy. I’m big on civil liberties,” Sanford said in an interview with TheDCNF. “But you actually lose rights when you’re incarcerated; you go to jail. The idea of somebody running a business, dealing drugs, planning hits, or whatever else, is unfathomable.”
“There was a recent escape here in South Carolina that was orchestrated by cellphones inside the prison,” he added.
Sanford sent a letter to the FCC in July asking the agency to review the use of cellphone jamming technology within prisons. While jamming is explicitly illegal under the Communications Act of 1934, there are a number of growing technologies that appear to fall outside the technical bounds.
Managed Access Solutions, or Systems (MAS), for example, is a technology that works by creating a local cellular network at a prison that all devices must access before communicating to the outside world.
“In simple terms, any device that is unknown to the prison-based cellular system is prevented from accessing the commercial mobile network of ATT, Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint as examples, and is continually managed by the specialized local prison cellular network that we install,” an executive at Securus, a company that develops and offers such technology, told TheDCNF in an interview. Securus urgently requested that the executive remain anonymous out of fear of violent retribution coordinated through contraband cellphones. “We call this our Wireless Containment Solution (WCS),” the executive continued, which is essentially an updated, superior version of most MAS technologies.
WCS is completely different than jamming, according to the company, which acknowledged that such a rudimentary method is unlawful. Jamming indiscriminately blocks out all network signals, while WCS treats each signal uniquely, basing the decision to obstruct signals based on “policy entries for known vs. unknown devices.”
“Jamming is like shouting in a room over everyone else’s conversation such that no two people can hear or understand each other,” the Securus executive said. “Our WCS communicates with cellphones using the same U.S. cellular bands and radio protocols used by commercial mobile carriers and does not drown out a room, but rather speaks each individual language (ex. LTE [Long-Term Evolution]) to each individual cellphone in order to connect to it and manage its ability to either access the public network or not.”
Dr. Patrick Diamond of Diamond Consulting, a firm that specializes in synchronization of networked systems among other functions, co-authored an extensive 2012 study into MAS with several other researchers. The California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) conducted and sponsored the report in response to an inquiry to investigate from California state senators. The study showed that illegal cellphones are not just endemic to South Carolina.
“Contraband cellphone usage is a problem that CDCR [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] takes very seriously,” Scott Kernan, secretary of the CDCR, said in an official statement.
The study found that contraband cellphones in prisons are a growing state and national security issue, and several different factors contribute to the problem, including inconsistent screenings at state prisons. It concluded at the time, however, that while more research is needed, MAS is not yet ready for the prison environment due to a number of reasons, including the fact that the capabilities of mobile devices are constantly evolving.
But just as cellphones can improve, so can MAS technology.
“In 2011/2012, managed access was in its technical infancy, as I noted in the CCST report,” Diamond said in an interview with TheDCNF. “Five years is several technical generations of improvement. As the NIJ [National Institute of Justice] report of July 31, 2017, states, ‘Managed Access appears to be able to provide a reasonable degree of protection, within technical boundaries.’”
Another proprietary possibility is Cell Warden Prison Protocol Beacon Technology, created by the company Cell Command.
“Cell Command has the only technology that literally turns the phone off, thereby shutting down every available function on the wireless device,” CEO John Fischer said in an interview with TheDCNF. “Competing technologies such as Managed Access Systems are easily defeated simply by switching sim cards. With one mobile hotspot, changing sim cards regularly provides a handful of non-carrier active phones full internet access complete with email and WiFi calling.”
“If the phone is turned off, none of this is possible,” he continued. “Sim cards and SD [secure digital] cards hold vast amounts of data, are very small, and are commonly transferred to nefarious visitors permitting outside instruction to other gang members.”
In countries such as Brazil, Honduras and El Salvador, barbaric gangs use contraband cellphones to videotape rape, decapitation, and dismemberment of rival gang members and correctional staff, according to Fischer, who adds that MS-13 is one of the most prevalent culprits. They also make the savage content “available for sale to the public where there is a sick appetite for brutal torture,” he said. “In the eyes of an inmate, just another means to make a living.”
Like Ozmint and Johnson, Fischer described how prisoners have essentially taken over the very area where they are supposed to be controlled, severely compromising correctional facilities’ ability to prevent, or at least contain, the criminal activity.
For Fischer’s technology to work, though, it would have to be automatically installed on every device the telecommunications industry manufactures and offers — something the private sector thinks is a pipe dream.
Ozmint and Fischer don’t understand why it’s such a far-fetched concept, since the U.S. already mandates technology for other means of public safety. Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett (Ret.), the outside counsel for Cell Command who served as the FCC’s Chief of the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau for several years, said there is plenty of precedence for the FCC designating such a technology. Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA), the public safety system that delivers Amber Alerts and other notifications, for example, is very different in the technical sense but is similar in regards to the policy that could bring it to fruition.
Companies voluntarily entered into the WEA at the encouragement of the FCC, Barnett told TheDCNF in an interview, arguing that force is not required to bring companies on board. In that case, the carriers joined in under the Wireless Response Network Act.
“The same concept could work for Cell Warden beacon technology, and it doesn’t need legislation,” Barnett said.
AT&T declined to provide comment but did cite input the company submitted to the FCC.
“AT&T supports rules that aggressively prevent and terminate the use of contraband wireless devices in correctional facilities, but these rules must not come at the expense of law-abiding wireless consumers,” the filing reads.
The conglomerate cited stories in Baltimore where drivers traveling near the city’s main prison have complained of their wireless communications being inappropriately swept up in the MAS system and blocked. The report comes from 2014, so the technology has improved, according to Securus. And those concerns don’t appear to address Cell Command’s beacon technology, which can limit its scope down to one meter.
Both AT&T and Verizon referred TheDCNF to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), the trade organization which represents all major wireless providers, for comment. CTIA told TheDCNF that a “comprehensive remedy” for the illegal cellphone problem requires “action by all stakeholders,” which includes the “government, the public safety community and technology providers.”
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai seems more than willing to discuss potential solutions. Johnson told TheDCNF he met with several lawmakers on a recent meeting tour in Washington D.C. He said the only person to sincerely show interest was Pai, while others seemed dismissive, unmoved, and “didn’t write anything down.” While Johnson remembered Pai, he declined to name specific congressmen because he “met with so many, the names have blurred.”
TheDCNF sat down with Chairman Pai to discuss the issue of contraband cellphones in prisons.
“I’ve had the chance to visit correctional facilities from Bishopville, South Carolina, all the way up to Massachusetts, and all the way west of Fort Leavenworth [Kansas],” he told TheDCNF. “What I’ve heard from a variety of officials, both federal and state, is that these devices all too often are weapons, and also enablers of criminal activity.”
“That’s one of the reasons why I highlighted this issue over the previous couple of years and part of the reason why we took action this past March to implement some solutions,” he continued.
Pai cited his meeting with Johnson as “incredible” and “inspiring.”
“We don’t want to see another Captain Johnson, he’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Pai. “I’ve talked to other correctional officers who live in fear of opening up the garage door at night when they come home, or getting in the car in the morning.”
Since CTIA said any decisive action would require all stakeholders, TheDCNF asked if Pai could envision sitting down with wireless carriers and other policymakers to come up with a potential solution, including discussing the implementation of MAS and Cell Warden technology, respectively.
“That’s one thing we’re trying to figure out, is there a solution that works for all the stakeholders involved,” Pai said. “This is one of them [Cell Warden] that has worked in a couple facilities that we’ve heard about. We want to figure out is this a reliable path forward?”
Ozmint, who is an expert on various technologies related to the blocking of contraband cellphones and now works as an attorney, said wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon are not being genuine. He also voiced his frustrations with the FCC of years past, saying no one ever fully took law enforcement’s concerns of contraband cellphones seriously because “their masters of industry” influenced the agency.
Johnson felt the effect of that apparent neglect. He spent seven months in several medical facilities following the attempted hit job. But he has a lot more than scars to remind him of the severely traumatic event.
“I spent the last 6 years with holes in my stomach cause they couldn’t close them up,” he told TheDCNF. “I’ve had 23 different surgeries with more to come. I suffer from pain in my left leg 24/7. One of my lungs is badly damaged; I am only operating on one lung. I look forward to going to sleep at night cause I don’t want pain. I don’t take pills cause I don’t want to get addicted.”
The would-be assassin, Sean Echols, was able to inflict such serious damage because of a contraband cellphone belonging to the mastermind of the plan who was behind bars in the prison Johnson served. Echols was sentenced to 40 years for a separate crime, according to Johnson, a punishment that was actually more than he was set to face for the murder attempt.
After being asked why Echols took the larger punishment, Johnson said it was “because he was afraid of the mastermind” who is, of course, supposed to be unable to intimidate people and commit criminal acts while incarcerated. The architect of the hit would be able to hurt Echols or his family if the failed assassin cooperated with authorities because of inmates’ access to contraband cellphones.
Public attention to illegal cellphones within prisons is only in the nascent stages, despite the efforts made by Johnson, Ozmint, Fischer, Securus, and others over the last decade.
“Clearly, this is a problem that needs to be addressed,” Nicol Turner-Lee, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation, told TheDCNF. “I think it’s important for the FCC to continue to explore the policy implications of any deployed technologies to ensure that it specifically solves the problem and does not encroach on the rights of others.”
“More recently, newer technologies have enabled prisons to monitor contraband cellphone use and block unauthorized calls, without jamming, while allowing legitimate calls to connect,” Tom Struble, tech policy manager at the think tank R Street, told TheDCNF. “Hopefully, with technological advances and an engaged FCC, prisons can finally start to clamp down on contraband cellphones.”
Ozmint believes the Cell Warden’s beacon technology is the only way to fully address the complex issue of contraband cellphones. Johnson, who receives monetary compensation from Securus to help pay for medical expenses, advocates for the company’s WCS technology because he’s seen it work and knows firsthand that something must be done.
“I truly believe that while technology started this problem,” Johnson said, “technology will also solve this problem.”