Prison gangs have found a new revenue stream to finance their criminal activities behind the walls of America's toughest prisons.
Gang members are using cell phones to extort other prisoners and their families.
Officials at Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, Ga., have identified the prisoner seen in a photo taken behind bars by a contraband cell phone.
18-year-old Cortez Berry is seen squatting in a submissive posture to a gang member in a prison bathroom. His left eye and face is swollen as the result of a savage beating.
A leash fashioned out of available material is wound around Berry's neck. The other end of the leash is wrapped tightly around the gang member's left hand. Another gang member stands close to him, gesturing at the camera as if he's pointing a pistol. All 3 men are shirtless.
The photo was sent via text to Berry's "friends and family", who forwarded it to radio host Austin Rhodes in Augusta. Austin posted the picture on his Facebook page on Friday. It went viral from there.
“My heart sank when I saw the picture,” said Berry’s mother, Demetria Harris. “I was yelling, hollering and screaming. I got on the phone immediately and called down there.”
Harris told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution there was no attempt to extort her family for money.
Berry's aunt, Shavondria Wright of Jonesboro, dropped everything and drove to Forsyth to see about Berry, who is serving an 8-year sentence for aggravated assault.
“When I saw him, I was just so hurt,” Wright said. “I was in tears to see his face like that.”
Wright said Berry told her he was jumped by 10 other prisoners after he refused to join their gang. "What I don’t understand is why they put the leash around his neck,” said Wright.
“Cell phones are often used to commit and plan crimes outside of prison, but also to incite violence and to extort family members who are incarcerated,” attorney Sarah Geraghty told the AJC. “We hear from family members all the time that they will receive a text picture of their loved ones, who have been beaten with the message, ‘pay us money or something will happen.’ There is a crisis in security in the Georgia prison system. Every prisoner has or had access to a cell phone.”
Prison officials are struggling to contain the flow of cell phones into the prisons. There are more cell phones behind bars than guards.
According to NBC News, since 2012, 13,500 cellphones have been confiscated from Georgia prisons. Prison officials have installed equipment to scan visitors for cell phones and other electronics. But most of the time the guards are the ones smuggling the contraband into the prisons in exchange for cash or sex.
“The problem plaguing the corrections system nationwide is one that the [Georgia DOC] is aware of and continuously works to utilize extensive resources to combat this issue," said Gwendolyn Hogan, a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Corrections.
Meanwhile, Cortez Berry has been placed in protective custody for his own safety.
“It is hard to see [the photo] on the Internet,” Wright said. “But in this situation, I am kind of grateful that they had contraband, or we wouldn’t have known about this.”
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