So much for clanking out coded messages on the prison bars. Some Virginia inmates apparently have found a more modern means of communication.
A surprise search this month at the medium-security Lawrenceville Correctional Center in southern Virginia found that inmates had about a half-dozen cellphones, a Department of Corrections official said.
The Dec. 7 discovery followed the release of an independent study in September that found problems with drugs and other contraband and with staff turnover at Lawrenceville, the state's only privately run prison, which has about 1,500 inmates.
The study, conducted by MGT of America for the Corrections Department, said that the facility was well-run overall and that it was difficult to compare Lawrenceville with the 40 or so state-run prisons in Virginia.
Larry Traylor, a spokesman for the Corrections Department, said the search this month was conducted by state officials and prison staff members, employed by the Geo Group of Boca Raton, Fla.
Traylor declined to comment on the details of the search or to say whether disciplinary action followed.
"We're not going to discuss any security matters," he said. "We do conduct scheduled and unscheduled shakedowns and lockdowns at all facilities throughout the state. . . . Inmates that are caught concealing contraband are subject to disciplinary procedures, which could include criminal prosecution and transfer to a higher-security prison facility."
Members of the Virginia State Crime Commission, visiting the prison Sept. 11, were briefed on the MGT report and told by Geo Group officials that security would be heightened.
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who leads the commission, said such discoveries regrettably are common.
"I've been a lawyer for 20 years, and the one thing that never ceases to amaze me is how smart criminals are," Albo said. "They will find a way to get drugs in, to get cellphones in. . . . It's not a good thing to have cellphones there. . . . It's just the nature of a prison."
A spokesman for the Geo Group referred questions to the Corrections Department.
The cellphone discovery was first reported yesterday in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Lawrenceville is in rural Brunswick County, near the North Carolina border. The prison was opened in 1998, the state's first experiment in turning the custody of inmates over to a private company.
In March, the Times-Dispatch reported that state figures showed that one in five cellphones confiscated in Virginia prisons was found in Lawrenceville. State officials called the figures incomplete and misleading, and Traylor said yesterday that he could not verify them.
Traylor said that cellphone-detecting dogs, added to the department this year, are used across the state in searches but are not permanently assigned to Lawrenceville.
"The Department of Corrections does have several K-9s that are trained to detect and find cellphones," Traylor said. "We will be utilizing these dogs."
He added: "We're pleased with the cooperation and support we have with the Geo Group and are confident that the facility is operating under our guidelines and policies."
Thomas A. Rosazza, a Colorado-based prison consultant, said such security breaches are preventable and usually occur because of corruption by corrections officers, ill-supervised visitations or improperly inspected deliveries.
"You've just got to be vigilant," he said. Cellphones "are pretty big. It's not like hiding a balloon you can swallow. A cellphone is a sufficient size that there's got to be collusion to bring it in, or lack of good security. It's not rocket science. If you've got a secure perimeter, how can anything get in? It can get in if you're not doing a good job of looking."
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