Officials: SC drug investigation highlights cell phone contraband problem

54 people were indicted in a drug trafficking network officials said probably wouldn't exist if inmates did not have cell phones


Kasie Strickland
The Easley Progress

PICKENS COUNTY, S.C. — In June of 2018, agents with Pickens County Sheriff’s Office, along with numerous Upstate Law Enforcement Agencies, the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), and the State Grand Jury Division of the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office, initiated a State Grand Jury investigation into a large scale drug trafficking operation in the Upstate.

Operation Prison Empire was a “go.”

Officials say a drug trafficking investigation that led to the indictment of 54 individuals would not have been necessary if inmates in state prisons did not have contraband cell phones. (Photo/South Carolina Department of Corrections)
Officials say a drug trafficking investigation that led to the indictment of 54 individuals would not have been necessary if inmates in state prisons did not have contraband cell phones. (Photo/South Carolina Department of Corrections)

At a press conference held Friday at the Pickens County Sheriff Office, Sherriff Rick Clark said the investigation quickly grew to include the Midlands and involved areas outside of the state. The investigation originated out of previous case that was investigated by several law enforcement agencies and prosecuted by the State Grand Jury Division of the S.C. Attorney General’s Office.

Authorities said the investigation was code named “Prison Empire” because a large part of the drug trafficking organization was operated by convicted inmates who were currently serving active prison sentences inside the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC).

The investigation revealed the criminal organization, which included both SCDC inmates and their codefendants on the streets, were responsible for having trafficked over 500 kilograms of methamphetamine and multiple kilograms of heroin and cocaine, most of which were destined for locations in the Upstate, Clark said.

The assessed street values of the illegal drugs was estimated to be in excess of $20 million.

In addition to illegal drugs, the investigation resulted in the seizure of over 40 firearms from street contacts, as well as numerous contraband cellular telephones possessed by inmates within the SCDC, Clark said.

“Unfortunately, this investigation highlights an ongoing issue that both Law Enforcement and Corrections Officers deal with on a daily basis; the fact that SCDC inmates routinely gain access to cellular telephones,” said PCSO CHief Deputy Chad Brooks. “On an increasingly frequent basis, we are finding that the conviction of an offender does not lead to an end of their nefarious activities and their victimization of our communities. Instead, technological advances in cellular telephones have allowed incarcerated subjects to not only remain connected with their pre-existing criminal networks, but to expand upon them once inside of prison,” Brooks said. “Cellular telephones are the conduit by which communication, counter surveillance, and financial transactions are facilitated; without them inside of the prison system, the need for this investigation would likely not exist.”

S.C. AG Alan Wilson echoed Brooks’ sentiments.

“The only way prison inmates are able to keep committing crimes on the outside is by using contraband cell phones,” Wilson said. “They coordinate with people on the outside to get drugs and smuggle them into prisons. This market for contraband inside our prisons has contributed to gang power, gang rivalries, and gang violence within our prisons, and also contributes to violence on the outside by those who are involved.”

Officials said as a result of the extensive investigation, 54 people have been indicted on 192 counts.

“Several of the defendants are inmates presently incarcerated in prisons throughout the state,” said Brooks. “This case has particular importance to the Pickens County Sheriff’s Office and the citizens of Pickens County since a large number of those indicted are either from Pickens County or have direct ties to the county. Therefore, this operation represents the continued commitment of the Pickens County Sheriff’s Office; and all the Law Enforcement Agencies involved, to combating the illicit drug trade and substance abuse within all our communities.

“Prison Empire crossed multiple jurisdictional boundaries and affected communities throughout S.C.; hence we would like to recognize not only our agents, who continue to work tirelessly on this investigation, but all the Agencies and their agents, who pulled together to make this type of investigation possible. In particular, we would like to recognize the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), the Greenville County Multi-Jurisdictional Drug Enforcement Unit (GCMJDU), the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office, the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office, the Edgefield County Sheriff’s Office, the Lexington County Sheriff’s Office, the Laurens County Sheriff’s Office, the Easley Police Department, the Liberty Police Department, the Pickens Police Department, the South Carolina Department of Corrections’ Division of Police Services, the South Carolina National Guard Governor’s Counterdrug Task Force, and the State Grand Jury Division of the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office.”

“Each agency played a critical role in this investigation, without their professionalism and dedication we would have been unable to successfully attain these indictments,” Brooks said.

The defendants were indicted through the State Grand Jury and all who are in custody have been transported to the Greenville County Detention Center for booking and bond hearings. Some of the trials will be held in the Pickens County Courthouse, they said.

The cases will be prosecuted by the State Grand Jury Division of the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office.

“It is unacceptable that in the year 2019, we cannot legally jam inmates’ contraband cell phones,” said Bryan Stirling, director of the S.C. Department of Corrections. “The technology exists to stop them. It’s time for Congress to let us do so.”

“An illegal cell phone is the most dangerous weapon in our prisons today,” Stirling continued. “We are grateful to all of our law enforcement partners and the state grand jury for helping bring these cases forward and highlighting the serious issue of cell phones in prisons.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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