BULLOCK COUNTY, AL (WBRC) - Three corrections officers working at Bullock Correctional Facility, a medium security prison in Union Springs, AL, are charged with attempting to smuggle contraband into the prison.
According to public records, Victor Lamar Davis, 24, was found with contraband he intended to bring into the prison, including a substance believed to be marijuana, 10 cell phones, two cartons of cigarettes, and cell phone chargers.
The records also say he was conspiring with Tevin Terrell Benton, 23, who was also found with similar items and cocaine.
An arrest warrant for Khayla Chambers, 20, says she was searched at the direction of the warden and found with 50 suboxone strips and a cell phone intended for a particular inmate, with whom she admitted to having a sexual relationship.
The officers were terminated and face felony charges.
"I would say to varying degrees, we have some issue of contraband within all of our facilities," said Jeff Dunn, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections.
Dunn was appointed by Governor Robert Bentley as commissioner on April 1, 2015.
"Whether the contraband is drugs or cell phones, whatever form it takes, it increases the risk that we take inside the facility. It makes the facility less safe than it otherwise would be. Inmates use contraband for all sorts of illicit activity, which include facilitating the drug trade and a whole host of things that make it more difficult for us to do our public safety mission," said Dunn.
Nicole says she regularly visits her husband at Bullock Correctional Facility. Her name was changed to protect her and her husband from retribution.
"As far as I know, that's the only way anything can come into the prison or out of the prison is via the guards," said Nicole.
According to Nicole, some guards will accept money to smuggle contraband into inmates. She says the cost for a cell phone is between $200 and $300. She does not know how much it would cost for drugs.
"They are making a salary with the state of Alabama and they are there to work and to protect people and they are bringing in contraband that causes fights, that causes problems, and that causes riots," Nicole said.
Most of the violence in prisons is tied to contraband, says Dunn. Inmates using drugs become indebted to other inmates who use violence to recover the debt, he explained.
"The cell phone issue is just a whole host of issues," said Dunn.
He explained inmates use cell phones to conduct drug activities, both inside and outside the prison facilities, and allow them to coordinate illegal activities with others. Dunn says some inmates have been arrested for using cell phones inside prisons to threaten and extort people outside.
Advocacy groups and civil rights lawyers say that some inmates need cell phones in prisons because using the prison phone service is cost prohibitive.
The Federal Communications Commission took action in Oct. 2015 to cap rates on phone calls made from prisons. The agency said some calls could cost as much as $14 per minute.
"Inmate calling reform is not only the right thing to do, it's also good policy," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in Oct.
But in early March 2016, a federal appellate court put a hold on the lower rate caps, while allowing a restriction on fees to proceed.
"While we regret that relief from high inmate calling rates will be delayed for struggling families and their 2.7 million children trying to stay in touch with a loved one, we are gratified that costly and burdensome ancillary charges will come to an end. These fees can increase the cost to consumers of a call by nearly 40 percent compounding the burden of rates that are too high," said Wheeler.
A corrections officer working at St. Clair Correctional Facility interviewed on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution. He says there are a couple of reasons officers may be tempted to smuggle contraband.
"There are some that get involved because they get scared," the officer explained. "They are scared in the job in itself. And so they start off with something little and then they do it out of fear and some do it because they are just crooked people and they want the money."
The DOC has conducted two searches of Bullock prison since Jan. 2015, which revealed 262 cell phones. Assuming all the phones came from corrections officers, that phone trade could be valued at more than $52,000.
Over 2,500 cell phones have been discovered inside all Alabama prisons in the past year.
"The number of contraband cell phones found in state correctional facilities is indicative of his major contraband concern for the department," a spokesperson said in a statement.
Eight corrections officers have been terminated department-wide for promoting contraband, according to the DOC. The three fired from Bullock are the only ones facing criminal charges.
"It tells me that we have some folks that are in our employ but not on our team," said Dunn. "I think it really speaks to the challenge that we have that issue in various pockets around the department."
The DOC implemented a policy one year ago that requires supervisors to pat down every employee and visitor entering facilities. The warden may additionally order a strip search of an employee for cause or suspicion.