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In an effort to protect you and your loved ones from scam artists, the Indiana Department of Corrections is taking action at its facilities including the Pendleton Correctional facility where up to seven banned cell phones are recovered a week.

Some of the inmates who had the phones in their possession have used the technology to try to scam innocent people in Indiana and across the country.

“There is still 50 to 100 cell phones inside the facility that have not been found,” said Tom Francum, Pendleton Correctional Facility Chief of Internal Affairs.

He said the cell phones make it past the metal detectors, 30-foot high exterior walls and barbed wire, through prison staff and visitors.

“That’s their entertainment, that’s their contact with the outside World, and that’s how they run their criminal enterprise,” said Detective Robert May with Indiana State Police.

He is assigned to the prison full-time.

May compares the inmates to telemarketers.”They just make phone calls, constant phone calls.”

The convicted murderer of a Carmel businessman, John David Smith, and a few other inmates are under investigation right now for using the banned cell phones to run a credit card scheme.
Their elderly victims, who live all over the country, were plucked from online obituaries, according to May.

FOX59 has been told that the Department of Corrections has contacted the Secret Service, but there has been no response about interest in taking on the case.

Madion County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings said, for the most part, it is hands-off for his office.

“Bringing them in here to charge them with a cell phone violation of some kind really isn’t cost-effective,” said Cummings, who explained how many of the men will spend the rest of their lives behind bars.

IDOC has been disciplining the inmates caught with the electronic contraband internally by revoking certain privileges. A typical punishment for a first offense is no contact visits for six months. The visits will have to be completed behind glass on a phone.

But, the people who are bringing the cell phones into the prison are being prosecuted. Some of the people caught are very familiar with the prison because they are either civilian employees or prison guards.

Former correctional officers Wanda Strickler and Jeffrey Coleman have both been charged with trying to bring cell phones and even other contraband to inmates. According to a probable cause, an inmate put $400 on Coleman’s Green Dot Card in exchange for three cell phones. Marijuana was also found inside the former guard’s car.

‪”I think there is an epidemic of employees and others who bring contraband into the facility to inmates inside. It’s overwhelming and dangerous,” said Cummings.

It is also lucrative. A simple flip phone can be rented or sold for several hundred dollars inside Pendleton. Francum showed FOX59 their evidence room that is full of cell phones including several fairly new iPhones.

He claims iPhones have a prison value of $2,300 to $4,900. Inmates use Green Dot card numbers for the transactions.

“It takes a special person to grab a person’s crotch and see what they have in there, and do you feel everything that is in everyones’ crotches,” said Detective May about the prison security checkpoint.

Pendleton uses one K9 team on site with a special talent. The dog is trained to sniff out cell phones. Still, some occupied cells may go unchecked for a month because of the number of inmates inside the facility.

May and prison officials often count on tips from the public and other inmates about cell phone possession.

Francum said additional specialized K9 teams would help as would more manpower and critical tools like cell phone detectors, but budgets are tight.

Reporter: “How do you think it looks for someone on the outside?”

Francum: “Like there’s a huge problem inside the prison, and we can’t control it, but we are doing everything we can every day to stop it from happening.”

Indiana Department of Corrections officials also said they have been proactive about filling vacant staff positions. They recently conducted a job fair that attracted several dozen applicants.

Both Francum and May spoke to a federal law change that prison officials have been pushing for several years. They want to use cell phone jammers to combat the contraband problem. Currently, the devices are illegal even for state departments.