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Searching toilets, beds for illegal items in South Carolina prisons

South Carolina's jails are filled with illegal items, from cell phones to homemade knifes. It's this team's job to get those items out.

LANCASTER, S.C. — Despite ongoing efforts to keep contraband out of South Carolina state prisons, inmates manage to get banned items inside. But search teams work full-time to rid the prisons of the illegal items. Recently, News19 was allowed inside the Kershaw Correctional Facility in Lancaster County as the team responsible for raiding jail cells conducted an early morning contraband crackdown. 

Only minutes into the crackdown, officers made the first discovery of the day. But it wasn't found by the team; instead, an inmate gave it up.  

"This a homemade weapon called a shank," explained Dexter Lee, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Corrections who's been with the agency for 30 years. The inmate threw that out when they saw the new crew and the guards coming.  

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They said they make a discovery like that one all the time. 

"Anytime we do searches, we find it." Lee said. "Contraband is an ongoing battle we face. Contraband is here."

In another cell, they found tobacco. 

Over the past several years, the state corrections department has cracked down on contraband, specifically cell phones. Inmates use them to conduct illegal activity behind bars.On this day, officers searched 64 cells, finding 46 cell phones and 41 chargers.  

Credit: WLTX
Homemade knives, cell phones, and chargers seized from a South Carolina prison.

Bryan Sterling, the director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, says inmates use those phones to commit more crimes behind bars. 

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"You name it, from drugs to sexual predators," Sterling said. "They can scam the military. They can have try to have murders committed behind bars. A contraband cell phone was used to order a hit on Captain Robert Johnson of Sumter. He was doing the same job you saw out officers doing [today]." 

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During the search we witnessed, the agency's Rapid Response Team looked for any and all contraband. 

"Anything from drugs, prescription pain medicines," said Lee. "Property we look at they shouldn't have. they have a standard list of items they can't have. Drugs and weapons can vary from small shanks to large shanks, metal and stuff from anything that they can find inside a prison."

"It's dangerous for our employees and it's dangerous for others who are locked up," Sterling said. "There are some people who can and will make weapons and we do what we can to stop that. but you can't build prisons without metal. So we have to go search. make sure folks who are coming and going are searched so they can't move the metal around the yards."

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To crack down on the problem, netting is being used outside the prison to stop contraband from being thrown over the fence. Inside, high-tech scanners alert officers if an inmate has a cell phone hidden on his body. Sterling said the inmates get creative in hiding contraband.        

"Not only in the cell, but the shower, the kitchen. We have them where our chapels are. You name it: the gyms, visitation, wherever they can think of to hide something, they will do that. That's a problem as old as the prisons. That's why we have to do these searches. we had about 110 staff members. It's a lot of effort to move everybody in a facility and go through brick by brick to find everything."

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