Investigators of a deadly prison riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C., were shocked at not only the death toll but also at the inordinate role that contraband cell phones played in the April 2018 uprising.

Source: Shutterstock
Text: Despite their best efforts to interdict cell phones, great numbers are still reaching the hands of incarcerated individuals. Corrections facilities need the right tools and training to leverage data lawfully collected from contraband phones to disrupt crimes occurring inside and outside of their facilities.

In the aftermath that left seven inmates dead and 17 badly injured, the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) has transformed itself–bolstering physical security measures and managing digital evidence collected from contraband phones to prevent these incidents from happening again. 

The lessons they learned and the steps they have taken can guide corrections institutions everywhere in protecting their employees, inmates, and the public.

Correcting Deficiencies

The incident at Lee was a wake-up call for SCDC to update their system on several levels:

Infrastructure: Installing additional, better-quality cameras in strategic locations was necessary.

Keyless electronic locking mechanisms and doors, which can be controlled by a button from a control tower, were put in place.

Staffing: Not having sufficient staff to adequately control the incarcerated was a chronic problem at Lee and remains a challenge at many agencies across the country. Lee has provided an opportunity for corrections facilities everywhere to reevaluate their staffing needs and seek the funding and outreach necessary to solve the problem.

Technology: We lacked trained personnel and technology to do anything with boxes of contraband cell phones, but that changed with the addition of new Cellebrite Digital Intelligence solutions and training. (Digital Intelligence is the data collected and preserved from digital sources and data types [smartphones, computers, and the Cloud] and the process by which agencies collect, review, analyze, manage, and obtain insights from this data to run their investigations efficiently.)

SCDC‘s Digital Makeover

Source: South Carolina Department of Corrections
Text: Following the incident at the Lee Correctional Institution (above), corrections officials realized just how widespread the contraband phone problem was and took immediate steps to improve their infrastructure and investigative processes including the addition of new Digital Intelligence solutions and training.

Following Lee, we upgraded our Cellebrite technology to include Cellebrite Pathfinder and hired and trained more analysts on social media dynamics, including doing deep dives into people and their communications on the web, their phones, and tablets.

As a result, SCDC has nearly doubled its number of investigators that cover 21 institutions, and will soon launch their own forensics lab to handle the thousands of phones that are being confiscated in SCDC facilities every year.

Disrupting Criminal Networks Begins With Information Sharing

Under their new workflow, the confiscation of cell phones and analysis of their lawfully collected data helps to disrupt criminal activities carried out by incarcerated individuals.

When phones are intercepted, analysts are now lawfully collecting, analyzing, and putting digital evidence together with other intelligence information they’ve recovered. This allows them to build visualizations of the relationships between the incarcerated and law-breaking individuals in the outside community that can be shared with local authorities.

With their new forensics lab, SCDC investigators can extract cell phone information for analysis and comparison to internal and external databases. 

Source: Shutterstock
Text: Just because someone has been incarcerated doesn’t mean they stop committing crimes. By using analytics solutions, data lawfully collected from contraband phones can reveal connections between those inside who are continuing to perpetrate crimes and who they are conspiring with on the outside.

The collaboration between corrections investigators and outside agencies over this information can be invaluable, as the following true crime example shows.

Analysts at the SCDC Intelligence Division helped break the largest racketeering case in South Carolina history by digging deeply into cell phone data and social media information. Collaborating with outside agencies, the team found that drug dealing, murders, kidnapping, firearms distribution, and money laundering were being coordinated by incarcerated individuals via their cell phones—culminating in a 147-count superseding indictment against 40 defendants by a federal grand jury.      

The Urgent Need For Digital Intelligence in Corrections Facilities

To address the contraband cell phone problem, corrections managers need an end-to-end Digital Intelligence solution that includes:

Collect & review capabilities to discover and gather evidence from multiple points in mobile devices, computers, and the Cloud, whether connected to a network or not – while protecting the custodian privacy.

Investigative analytics to master the complexity of data and reveal actionable insights – accelerating time to resolution and improving your investigative operations.

Manage and control functions that maintain federal compliance using a customizable digital evidence management solution – ensuring that the right people have access to the right data, at the right time.

Special services that provide access to a global team of professional domain experts who provide the technical knowledge, bespoke solutions, and training needed to accomplish their mission.

Today, many crimes are more sophisticated, making them harder to identify because criminals are literally “hiding” behind the technology. Digital technology provides corrections managers the means to access those networks and disrupt violent criminal activities inside and outside of their facilities. 

Planning Your Digital Intelligence Strategy

One of the lessons learned from 9/11 is the realization by law enforcement that information gained through cell phones is a necessary tool in the fight against violent crimes and domestic terrorism.

When we talk about information and intelligence, few people think about domestic intelligence that deals with illegal activities behind bars. But tapping this “hidden” intelligence trove is a major piece in solving violent crimes.

Corrections managers need to understand that working with Digital Intelligence is a separate skill set. Yes, DI is a tool to help you get to an end result, but you have to be willing to combine the information you get from using that tool with the other intelligence you’re gathering to build the bigger picture. This is where training and having qualified personnel in place to leverage DI solutions for maximum advantage is critical.

To build airtight cases with evidence that cannot be refuted in court requires the proper workflow. Maintaining a proper workflow lets you identify the original location the phone came from. Once data has been extracted from the device, you can control where the data and the device are going to be stored, and who has access to it. This ensures the digital chain of evidence remains secure while providing your analysts and investigators with documented evidence sources they can go back to at any time.  

Ensuring Safety For All

Source: Cellebrite
Text: Making staff members and other incarcerated individuals safer on the inside while safeguarding communities outside starts by establishing a digital transformation strategy that utilizes data lawfully collected from contraband phones to disrupt criminal networks and curb violent crimes inside and outside of corrections facilities.

Disrupting the illicit activities made possible by contraband phones is key to law enforcement today.  Through the sharing of information across corrections networks and with outside agencies, Digital Intelligence solutions provide corrections managers with sophisticated crime-busting tools to improve safety both inside and outside of their institutions.

About the author: Brian Bolchoz is a retired law enforcement officer with over 25 years of service who, at the time of the Lee incident, was deputy director of the Investigations Division in South Carolina. His team was responsible for investigating the Lee incident. He now serves as a corrections safety consultant for Cellebrite and other entities.

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