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9 Investigates: Thousands of cellphones smuggled into Florida prisons

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ORLANDO, Fla. - 9 Investigates reveals a growing problem behind bars: Inmates smuggling cellphones into state prisons.

Channel 9's Vanessa Welch found prisoners are using contraband phones to commit crimes from their cells.

In fact, inmates recently stole the identity of one of central Florida's top law enforcement officers and pulled off an elaborate scheme.

Welch obtained an audio recording of Florida prisoner Jerry Dennis posing as Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent Danny Banks.

Banks heard the recording and knew immediately his identify had been stolen, telling Welch, “I knew very clearly that was not me. That was not me making that phone call.”

Banks said Dennis used his name and title to threaten people from his prison cell at the Martin County Correctional Facility. During the calls from his cell, Dennis told people if they didn’t wire transfer money to an account, they would be arrested.

Here’s how investigators said Dennis put the scam together: A friend who was not in prison found Banks’ name and title online in an FDLE press release.  The friend then gave the information to Dennis who used a cellphone he illegally smuggled into prison to pull off the scam.

Prisoners and their visitors are getting creative. 9 Investigates obtained photos from the Florida Department of Corrections showing how inmates and their associates tried to sneak in cellphones and chargers hidden in footballs and inside packages of cigarettes.

The suspects even threw cellphones in camouflaged sacks over fences and hid them in the hidden bottoms of food containers.

Last year, state corrections officials confiscated 4,681 cellphones from inmates. That works out to more than 12 contraband phones per day found within prisons across the state. 

“It’s concerning to all of us,” Banks said.

When two Orange County murderers, Charles Walker and Joseph Jenkins, escaped from a Florida prison last fall, a search turned up a cellphone used to plan the getaway.

In a separate case, FDLE said it discovered Kirk Cartwright was smuggling cellphones into a state prison in Lake City and selling the devices to other inmates.

Investigators believe Cartwright used a cellphone to call family and friends who helped him smuggle a gun into the prison through the mail.

Cartwright then shot himself, authorities said, and tried to blame a corrections officer so he could sue, but FDLE caught on to the scheme.

There's little deterrent for inmates like Cartwright, Walker, Jenkins and many others serving life sentences to stop trying to smuggle in the phones, officials say.

Banks insists FDLE is working closely with the Department of Corrections to “target that problem and work with them to minimize these inmates’ exposure to those opportunities.”

DOC officials told 9 Investigates that they are working hard to stop this practice and are using K-9s to sniff out cellphones.  All incoming packages are searched and inmates are frequently strip-searched, authorities said.

Corrections and law enforcement officers are also going after friends and family who help inmates smuggle phones into prisons. They can be charged with a third-degree felony for the crimes.