It was the kind of weekend inmates, guards and their loved ones fear.
A series of coordinated gang fights broke out across six Oklahoma men’s prisons last Sept. 14 and 15. Several corrections guards were injured, 36 inmates were hospitalized and one prisoner died. The violence prompted a statewide prison lockdown that lasted six weeks.
The inspector general’s office concluded that inmates used contraband cell phones — smuggled into facilities by visitors, volunteers or staff — to coordinate the fights. That discovery prompted Gov. Kevin Stitt to issue an executive order directing the corrections department to acquire technology that can detect and deter contraband cell phone use.
“Despite considerable effort on the part of the Department of Corrections to prevent cell phones from entering facilities and to confiscate contraband cell phones found in facilities, the threat these devices pose persists unabated,” Stitt wrote later that month.
A year later corrections officials have initiated a pilot program to test cell phone detection wristbands, produced by Florida-based Cell Detect Inc., which promise to stop contraband cell phone use without jamming networks or violating other federal regulations. The wristbands report an inmate’s location every hour and alert prison staff whenever cell phone radio frequency waves are detected.
Testing at the Lexington Assessment and Reception was scheduled to begin Thursday and last five weeks, according to a Sept. 16 affidavit signed by corrections chief of operations Mike Carpenter. However, prisoner advocates who called the facility Thursday say they were told inmates have not been fitted with the wristbands and the program may be delayed.
One in four Oklahoma prisons have seen a coronavirus outbreak with 100 or more positive cases. Inmates and their families fear the problem will worsen.
While there could be delays installing the technology, there are currently no plans to stop the program, corrections spokesperson Justin Wolf said Thursday afternoon. Oklahoma is the first state to test the devices and could be the first state to authorize systemwide use if the pilot program is deemed successful.
Corrections officials say the wristbands could put a major dent in organized crime activity and help eliminate one of the agency’s greatest threats to security. But many inmates and their advocates fear the widespread implementation of the devices could prompt the kind of violence the agency is trying to prevent.
In an emergency injunction filed Sept. 10 in U.S. district court, attorneys representing inmate Titus T. Helms and other plaintiffs argued the threat of gang violence is imminent and the Department of Corrections should immediately cease testing of the devices. The filing also stated that there have been talks among inmates of a systemwide riot in protest of the devices.
“Inmates and plaintiffs, including Helms, fear the repercussions from other inmates’ threats of violence for complying with directives,” attorneys Ronald Kelly and Debra K. Hampton wrote in the filing. Judge Jodi D. Dishman has not yet scheduled a hearing in response to the emergency injunction.
Hampton, an Edmond-based attorney who specializes in criminal law, said corrections staff at Lexington have threatened to file misconduct reports against any inmate who refuses to wear a bracelet. Meanwhile, gang members have made statements threatening to stab any inmate who complies with the program.
“We had a ton of people calling us about their loved ones and what they are being threatened with,” she said.
Hampton said inmates are also concerned that the devices could compromise their privacy. A representative from Cell Detect declined to answer questions about how the bracelets work and if they are capable of recording audio, instead directing Oklahoma Watch to the company’s website.
‘If You Wear One, You’re a Snitch’
In a Sept. 17 response to Hampton and Kelly’s emergency injunction, attorneys representing corrections director Scott Crow dismissed the possibility that the ankle bracelets would lead to gang violence, saying such claims are “purely speculative and factually inaccurate.”
That’s not the message Emily Barnes, an inmate rights advocate who has a son incarcerated at Davis Correctional Facility in Holdenville, has heard.
“The gangs have all come together on this one — if you wear one, you’re a snitch,” said Barnes, who has helped dozens of inmates file legal paperwork and has contacts at many Oklahoma prisons.
Because the wristbands are impossible to conceal, gang members could easily identify those complying with the program and push for retaliation, Barnes said. Another concern is that one inmate with a cell phone could trigger multiple alerts and innocent people would face disciplinary action.
“These people get written up all the time for stupid stuff, and now if they do wear these bracelets they’re going to get written up and charged for something that’s not even theirs,” she said. “There’s got to be a better solution.”
Visitors, prison volunteers and corrections staff may bring a contraband cell phone into a facility. But with programs shut down and visitation limited since mid-March, prison guards are the most likely source of contraband cell phones, Barnes said.
She said a better approach to stopping contraband cell phone use would involve implementing more stringent screening procedures for corrections staff each time they enter a facility.
“You don’t know what they’re bringing into the prisons because they’re not being checked,” Barnes said.
Voluntary or Mandatory?
Since announcing the cell phone intercept pilot program in mid-September, corrections department officials have provided conflicting information on how the testing phase will be carried out.
Carpenter, the chief of operations, signed an affidavit Sept. 16 that stated the program would last approximately five weeks and utilize “inmate volunteers.” He also described the detection devices as a wristband.
In a news release published a day later, the Department of Corrections stated that the program would last 60 days and all inmates housed at Lexington Assessment and Reception Center would be required to wear an ankle bracelet, not a wristband.
The affidavit signed by Carpenter provides the most accurate picture of how the testing phase will be carried out, Wolf said, adding that communication lapses led to the errors in the news release.
As the pilot program enters its first week, confusion remains as to if the testing program is truly voluntary and if the agency can force all of its inmates to wear the wristbands.
Though the volunteer description implies that inmates should not face repercussions for choosing not to wear the devices, facilities are given broad discretion on disciplinary matters and could in theory take action against an inmate that refuses to wear a device, Wolf said.
Inmate advocates say corrections staff at Lexington have been acting as if the program is mandatory.
“It’s kind of arbitrary to say ‘if you don’t volunteer, then we’re going to ship you or give you a misconduct’,” said Arthur Been, Hampton’s legal assistant who helped file the emergency injunction. “That’s not voluntary.”
Wolf said the corrections department anticipates no legal or logistical challenges implementing the devices systemwide if the pilot program is successful.
“Generally speaking, we are given authority to maintain security of our facilities, and these devices are a part of that,” he said.
Inmate Advocates Protest Devices
In closed Facebook groups where family members of Oklahoma inmates discuss prison conditions, rumors of violence stemming from the wristbands have circulated for weeks. As the pilot program launch date inched closer, those rumblings grew louder and more frequent.
Inmate advocates, fearful that their loved ones may be targeted if the devices are introduced statewide, were hard at work Wednesday trying to put a stop to the program.
“Starting at 8:00 a.m. Wednesday, we need everyone to call several times to Lexington prison and blow their phones up,” a call to action in one of the Facebook groups read. “Tell them they are going to get blood spilled on their hands if they go through with the bracelets.”
A warden’s secretary took the calls and mostly dismissed complaints, group members reported. But they weren’t discouraged. Early morning posts on Thursday encouraged group members to call director Scott Crow and chief of operations Mike Carpenter in protest of the pilot program.
Regardless of how prison administrators respond to their complaints, Barnes said she and dozens of other inmate advocates remain committed to making calls, holding in-person rallies and advocating for prisoners rights.
“It’s going to take all of us for stuff to be changed,” she said. “We all need to come together and fight DOC on this.”
As the calls and protests continue, all inmates and their families can do is wait and see what happens.
“I just pray that a riot doesn’t break out or anyone loses their life over this,” Barnes said.
Keaton Ross is a 2020 Report for America corps member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or Kross@Oklahomawatch.org. Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss