(WAFF) - It comes with repeated phone calls and threats on the other end: pay up or your loved one is in danger. Of course, this is the work of a criminal, but what if we told you that criminal is already serving time behind bars.
Paula Herron's call log is filling up in her cellphone, inmate after inmate, and she pays them.
Here's the backstory, Herron's son Timothy is in prison for murder. His drug habit inside prison walls is what opened the door to inmates calling his parents for money to pay off his debts in the first place, but it's now evolved into a full-blown extortion scheme with violence attached.
"He got a broken collarbone, nothing done about it. This last episode with eight of them burning him, stabbing him, two Saturdays ago, he got stabbed in the head," said Herron.
So what is a mother to do.
"It's probably been over $50,000 that we have sent the prison," said Herron.
We're missing a piece to this bizarre puzzle. How are these inmates able to call her multiple times a day?
Contraband cellphones smuggled in and Herron said everyone is involved, including correctional officers.
In 2016, 4,241 illegal cellphones were confiscated in our state prisons. In 2017, there was a slight dip to 3,883.
Over that same time, seven correctional officers were arrested for attempting to smuggle phones in.
"The payday does not justify the criminal behavior," said Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn.
"Let me speak directly to that mother. We advise anyone that is in that situation to stop. Stop what you're doing, contact us, don't give money, don't do any of those types of things. Let us investigate it because oftentimes it is not as it appears to you on the outside," he said.
However, Herron's calls to the warden went unanswered until now. She's been pointed to the prison investigation division.
The problem with cellphones is much bigger than extortion. Inmates are on social media, which can be used to harass more victims, and cellphones contribute to drugs getting in. And They're coming in from all directions.
"We get a lot of what we call throw overs, packages thrown over the fence that are coordinated that will contain contraband cellphones. We apprehend that type of stuff all the time. Alabama, along with the rest of the country, there is a small percentage of our staff and correctional officers that are involved in that," said Dunn.
They've even intercepted two drones attempting to d rop phones and drugs over the fence.
So how do you stop it? It's an answer you've heard before: more resources, which comes at a price to taxpayers. Paying for more staff to conduct searches, potentially adding phone-detecting dogs, body scanners or even technology to jam outgoing cell signals could be solutions.
The truth is a cellphone crackdown is expensive and low on the priority list behind recruiting correctional officers, increasing mental health services for inmates and addressing overcrowding.
It will take convincing the public and lawmakers to pay for it.
"I'm not reaching into your pocket. The state has not been reaching into pocket to adequately fund the Department of Corrections for 30 years. Yes, we cost a lot of money, I got it, I understand that. It's a core function to provide public safety, to make your neighborhoods safe, get criminals off the street. We believe we are using every dollar that we have as efficiently and effectively as we can," said Dunn.
Getting back to Herron, the calls continue from inmates, but what has stopped is the money. She has none left.
The department is still investigating all of this but have already moved her son into a new dorm away from those inmates.
By the way, getting caught with a cellphone in prison can come with more time added on to their sentences, but it does very little to deter criminals like the ones calling Herron since most are already serving life sentences.
If you feel you are a victim of prison extortion, call the ADOC Investigations and Intelligence Division at 1-866-293-7799.
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