After years of inmates in Tennessee’s prison systems using cell phones that are smuggled into the institutions to post on social media, contact people on the outside, and even other prisoners, the state has appointed a ‘Chief Interdiction Officer’ within the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC), and appointed Lee Dotson to the post. He began his new role on April 1, 2017, and in the weeks since, he has launched a PR campaign that would appear he’s successful, but is he? We’ve found that cell phones have only gotten cheaper to purchase by inmates, and social media posts have become more frequent. Historically the main focus was on Riverbend, but our investigation shows the problem extends to many other prisons in the state, despite the historical focus on Riverbend.
Inmate Lance Matlock has posted on social media within the last two weeks – however he has been locked up in the Riverbend Maximum security prison for many years, and will continue to be there until 2025. He’s posted at random times from with in the prison, generally late at night. His most recent post, on 05/23/17 not only tells that his previous cell phone got confiscated, but also that someone snitched on him for using it. Other than the post being from an inmate inside a Tennessee Dept. Of Corrections Prison, Riverbend in this case, something else also stood out. In the list of people that ‘liked’ the post in the past few days was Brandon Watson – who happens to be serving his own 12 year prison term, at MCMX – Morgan County Correctional Complex, 150 miles to the East.
Of course, a simple explanation would be that a friend or family member on the outside is posting or ‘liking’ on their behalf – but that doesn’t seem to be the circumstance in this or the dozens of other examples we’ve uncovered in our investigation. Not only have we uncovered hundreds of selfies taken inside the prisons, we’ve witnessed inmates communicating with each other, commenting on each others posts and timelines, and this is just the ‘public’ facing posts. We can’t even see the private posts on their accounts, which are likely much more frequent. In addition, there are inmates on dating apps we’ve found, and lots of male inmates communicating with multiple females on social media – all while serving their state prison sentence.
In the course of our investigation, inmates turned out to be linked to many other active inmates – especially in Georgia and Kentucky. We were able to document hundreds of interactions among inmates between prisons. In Kentucky, we were even able to find dozens of inmates that were friends with prison guards.
Over the next week we’ll show you more examples of inmates in Tennessee’s Prisons actively and currently using their smuggled in phone from within the prison. If it gives you any idea, these two inmates have 28 friends on common, and they have only been friends (on these particular social media accounts) since October of 2016. So what time of day are they able to get away with posting from secret cell phones, without being caught. Let’s take a look at the Riverbend inmate, Lance Matlock. the vast majority are just after 11PM, however a few have been during the daytime or early evening.
Here’s just some of what inmate Lance Matlock has been posting on social media, and what people have posted to him:
He even has conversations with women on facebook, some of them even like and reply and carry on conversations:
Some History – In November of 2013, the WSMV I-Team published a story that detailed how inmates were obtaining and using cell phones within the Riverbend Maxium Security Prison. At that time, one inmate claimed to have purchased upwards of 20 cell phones over 18 months from a guard, and even communicated with a reporter via the cell phone and sent photos for verification. At the time, a smuggled in cell phone was selling for around $400. The TBI and district attorney investigated at the time, here is an entire timeline of the WSMV investigation.
In February of 2016, officials intercepted 11 cell phones being smuggled into Riverbend Prison, despite the TDOC stating in a memo in Novebmber of 2013 that they ordered an 80-member special operations unit to sweep Riverbend Maximum Security Prison for contraband. The memo also states that the special operations team will now be stationed at all the entry points of the prison, including the sally port and checkpoint, and that TDOC is also planning to install advanced imaging technology at Riverbend.
In July of 2016, a death row inmate at Riverbend contacted WTVC detailing how cell phones were prevelant on death row inside the prison, too, despite all of the media coverage, promised improvement, and policy changes.
We reached out to the T.D.O.C., and they replied with this statement:
“The introduction of contraband into correctional facilities is a serious violation of state law and is not tolerated by the Tennessee Department of Correction. While this is a national problem, the Department works to intercept and recover any contraband. In addition, we work with our law enforcement partners to actively prosecute those who violate that law. We encourage anyone with knowledge of any threat to the safety and security of our institutions to call 1-844-TDC-FIND.”
A spokesperson also added “In the past 60 days, Mr. Dotson has worked tirelessly to collaborate with criminal justice agencies at all levels and is advancing TDOC’s investigative processes.”
Look for upcoming coverage in Part II of our series, which documents more cellphones in TN State prisons, how and with who they are communicating, both inside and outside the prison.
Here’s a small preview of what we found and will be covering in the upcoming parts of our investigation:
CORRECTION: We erroneously reported Mr. Dotson’s start date as April of 2016, the updated story reflects the correct date of April of 2017.
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