9 Investigates

9 Investigates: Records show increase in confiscation of cellphones in Florida prisons

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Fla. — 9 Investigates is learning more about the cellphone problem at Florida state prisons.

Channel 9 first reported about a push by Brevard County prosecutors to get the state's attention about the issue. They believe one inmate has terrorized a rape victim from prison.

New records obtained by Channel 9 investigative reporter Daralene Jones said that the number of cellphones confiscated at the prison where Christopher Wood is jailed has almost doubled in the last year.

Almost 700 cellphones and accessories have been found this year at Jefferson Correctional Institution, Florida Department of Corrections records said. That's compared with 394 phones and accessories last year.

The agency provided Channel 9 with a complete list of how many cellphones and accessories have been confiscated during the last four years at each of the state's 151 institutions.

Since 2014, some 38,179 cellphones and accessories have been found. The numbers have increased each year since, with 11,064 being found so far this year.

A spokeswoman said that that doesn't necessarily equate to criminal activity but said that it is illegal. She said that the agency continues to combat the problem.

Brevard County prosecutors told Channel 9 that recorded prisons calls are only part of the evidence they've provided DOC officials with to try to prove that Wood has a cellphone behind bars.

In one call to his aunt in Michigan, Wood seems to have real time information that his girlfriend is in trouble with law enforcement.

"Shari is in trouble with the police," Wood said in the call. "You have to get your phone. Shari's at my dad's house with the police."

It is one of only 16 calls Wood made from the authorized prison phone at Jefferson Correctional Institute in 2017 -- a drastic decrease from the hundreds of calls that he made during the four previous years.

"The public is at risk. These inmates have nothing but time, nothing but probably bad intentions," Assistant State Attorney Julia Lynch said. "And now they have the tool -- I call it the weapon -- in their hand. And now they can commit any crime, any form of solicitation, and it goes unchecked."

The DOC declined Channel 9's repeated requests for an on-camera interview, but they provided video showing prison guards searching cells and seizing cellphones hidden in other contraband.

"(The victim) and her daughters had been receiving messages from this person who called themselves Lilly Smith," Assistant State Attorney Samantha Barrett said.

Facebook's records show that some were sent using a mobile device, prosecutors said.

The DOC told Channel 9 that the State Attorney's Office notified prison staff members in September 2016 that they were concerned Wood was allegedly attempting to contact the victim through a third party.

DOC officials said Wood was given a formal no-contact order by his classification officer -- a written directive forbidding any attempts to contact the victim.

But prosecutors said the inmate continued to send Facebook messages.

DOC Secretary Julie Jones issued the following statement to Channel 9:

“The Department is steadfastly committed to preventing the introduction of contraband and upholding the security of our institutions. Our Office of Intelligence is working daily to find new, intelligence-led methods in the fight against contraband. We have zero tolerance for inmate misconduct and any action that would lead to the further victimization of individuals in the community. If any inmate is found to be in possession of a cell phone or other contraband item, FDC takes immediate measures to hold that individual accountable and ensure appropriate disciplinary action is taken."

DOC officials said Wood hasn't been caught with a cellphone, even though prosecutors said they have linked him to private Facebook messages sent from a mobile device.

In another prison call, Wood's aunt asked why he called from an authorized, recorded prison line.

"You lose your phone?" she said.

"They moved me to a different dorm," Wood said. "Things set up a little different down here."

The DOC told Channel 9 that it installed x-ray machines at all staff and visitor entrances at its institutions in January.

It also said a new intelligence unit is examining innovative approaches to keeping cellphones out of prisons.

But the DOC's inspector general said they've still made their way in despite routine sweeps.

"He said they come in either through drones, get snuck in through body cavities," Lynch said.

The DOC provided Channel 9 with a letter that it sent to the Federal Communications Commission supporting a measure that seeks to jam cellphones that are being used within prisons to combat contraband cellphone use.