Some 13,521 cellphones were confiscated from Georgia's 57,000 prisoners last year—far more than the 628 nabbed from Texas' 149,000 prisoners, or the 10,427 taken from California's prison population of about 114,000. And they aren't just being used to phone home. An NBC News investigation finds cellphones, penetrating prison walls thanks to drones and even guards, have "facilitated violence and criminal enterprise." In one example, three people were charged with account fraud after a man claiming to be a sheriff's officer called 78-year-old Addis Thompson last year demanding he pay a $734 fine for missing jury duty. Thompson loaded the money on two "Green Dot" cash cards and gave the man the account numbers. "All of a sudden, the phone went dead," Thompson says. It turns out the call came from Georgia's Autry State Prison. Thompson says it's "unbelievable that prisoners have the access to phones to do something of that nature."
A corrections expert says inmates, visitors, contractors, and staff members sneak phones into prisons; they've been found in boxes of food, toilet paper, and in Nerf footballs that soar inside, where inmates pay up to $1,000 per phone. A correctional officer at a private prison in Alamo, Ga., was even implicated in a "jury duty" scam when she was found moving money from a Green Dot to a prepaid Visa card in her name. She said she was moving the money for her inmate boyfriend. Family members also say they've been sent photos of beaten inmates via cellphone along with requests for money to stop the violence. One inmate died after his girlfriend couldn't afford to pay up. "I feel like it's my fault," she told the Chattanooga Free Times in 2013. An attorney says "we are at a point where we're talking about basic security measures that are not being followed." The Georgia Department of Corrections says it takes the accusations seriously and is investigating extortion cases.