Alabama family says prison inmates with cell phones extorted them: ‘They got a knife to my throat right now’:

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Daphne, Alabama – A smart phone seems like an innocent device. We use them every day. What happens when a smart phone gets into the wrong hands? Perhaps, like the ones behind prison walls?

One may think it’s fine because the prisoner can make easier phone calls to his or her relatives. What if they called for extortion?

What if they had a hit on your child? What if you were the victim? It’s a crime more common than we would like to believe. It’s an insidious crime, because it plays on the fears of the victim, it’s a mental and emotional rollercoaster, and an unseen enemy.

The smart phone can be a little too smart.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has tried to address the cell phone problem that continues to skyrocket in 2020.  They are illegal in federal prisons, but, they are everywhere, according to Forbes.

Officials say that cell phones are a menace. They not only cause problems inside the prison walls, but also on the outside.

The phones are used to coordinate attacks inside the prison and enable inmates to continue criminal activity outside of prison. They’ve been used to threaten witnesses, and additionally, coordinate simultaneous protests at multiple prisons according to a 2012 report by the AJC.

Corrections Commissioner Brian Owens in 2012 of Georgia said:

“They present a clear and present threat, not only to the inmates themselves but to our staff and to the public. They’re not about calling mom on Thanksgiving. They’re for power, money and gangs. It’s a big business and a tremendous problem.”

This was made evident by Ryan Rust and his family. In 2018, Ryan Rust was found dead in his Alabama prison cell. He was hanging from a belt. It was a ruled a suicide, but the family suspects otherwise. Now, they live in fear for their lives.

Ryan, who had run his own granite installation company, loved motorcycles.

He was a good old boy who loved varsity football, and he was a hard worker. He was kind-hearted, and he knew how to make folks laugh. But he had a problem that cost him his life, and now terrorizes his family.

It all started with the threatening calls to Jeff, 64, a towboat captain, who received multiple calls or texts from inmates locked up in prison hundreds of miles away.

The prisoners used contraband cell phones to warn Jeff that his son Ryan, who at the time, was serving a prison sentence at a state prison in southern Alabama, faced serious injury or would even be killed.

Sometimes the messages came from Ryan who also had a smartphone.

Every time his son pleaded for money, or else he would get hurt.

Ryan had been arrested earlier in 2018 for a parole violation. This came from a past statutory rape charge. He was desperate. He had been stabbed twice and slashed with a box cutter. The suspicion was that there was an unsettled debt involved.

Jeff got a text on his phone. It had a picture of his home in Daphne, Alabama and it demanded cash. But this time it didn’t go to just Jeff. It went to Ryan’s sister, Harmony Rust-Bodke.

Harmony Rust-Bodtke, is 39. She is a businesswoman who owns a motorcycle shop, and she is the mother of four.

The text told them that the house would burn down that night unless $2,000 was sent.

This had gotten so serious Jeff went out and purchased an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, including 1,000 rounds of ammunition. A security fence, and surveillance systems surround the property. A guard dog checks the perimeter around the house. Harmony also armed herself. Both have concealed carry permits and don’t leave the home without a sidearm.

Jeff knows that with the contraband cell phones, they can get anyone outside of the prison walls at any time. His son had a drug problem, and the drugs cost money. His addiction caused him to become rather familiar with the Alabama correctional system.

Ryan was given a three-year prison sentence in 2015. This was based on theft charges.

He got released the following year, but the 33-year-old violated parole conditions in January 2018. He was in Arizona and was extradited back to Alabama. He was incarcerated at the Bullock Correctional facility.

Somehow, he lost his commissary privileges. This didn’t allow him to have things like toothpaste, coffee, or deodorant.

He allegedly got them from his other cell mates who sold them to him for a lot more than they were worth. Thus, the cycle of constantly being in debt, and the extortion game began.  

At first, Jeff sent his son money. Jeff suspected that he was also feeding his sons drug habit. Word gets out in prison… well observation helps… and soon it became something too big to stop.

The phone calls and texts from prisoners who claimed Rusty owed them money started pouring in. He wired them small amounts. At first, it was anywhere between $30 to $50.

This was when Rusty was in the Easterling medium-security prison in Clio, Alabama. He was transferred to the Bullock medium-security prison in Union Springs, increased to hundreds.

According to the New York Times, Jeff could hear the Bullock prisoners in the background giving instructions like:

“Tell Daddy to get the money here or I will stab you right now.”

Ryan was moved to the Fountain medium-security prison in Atmore, Alabama. The threats continued. Jeff sent somewhere around $21,000 to different prisoners to ensure his son’s safety.

Four days before Christmas, Ryan Rust was found dead in a solitary cell at the Holman maximum-security prison in Atmore. The prison, over 50-years old, is so dilapidated and that the Alabama Department of Corrections has made plans to decommission it.

Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the decision has nothing to do with any issues of violence, according to WTVY.com in January of 2020.  He said that it was all because of maintenance problems that involve power, water, sewage backup and the deteriorating underground utility systems threatening the inmates and correctional staff.

Dunn said in a statement:

“This is a real and serious issue that cannot be understated and, after learning the extent of the risks associated with continued maintenance attempts at Holman Correctional Facility, moving quickly on our plans to decommission was the right and only decision.”

There were 422 general population inmates and 195 restrictive housing inmates that were relocated to other prisons. Had Ryan survived he would’ve been among them.

The 145 death row prisoners stayed behind.

This occurs as Alabama struggles with severe overcrowding and understaffing issues at its men’s facilities.

This why Jeff would be concerned about the threats that Rusty faced in his end days. Some horror stories include pouring boiling oil on Rusty. Another time, Rusty told Jeff they had a knife to his throat.

Sometimes, he would call the family in the middle of the night, pleading to be placed in protective custody or lock up. Threats surrounded him all the time, and Rusty didn’t want to be killed.

Naturally, like any loving Father would do, he gave in. The transfers were done through mobile apps like Cash App, Western Union and MoneyGram.

They were deposited into the bank account of the prisoner’s wives, girlfriends, or someone they trusted who then sent the money to them or kept it themselves. They even sent a cell phone to Missouri.

The family thinks that maybe they got a cell phone for another extortionist.

The Rust’s say they reached out to corrections officials many times to let them know about the extortion through cell phone usage. Nothing was ever done about it.  

But by late 2018, the tormented life of daily beatings, and death threats sent Ryan over the edge. He sent a list to his dad Jeff. The list contained the prisoner’s names who were extorting him, and who he thought would kill him. Jeff saved the screenshots that Ryan sent him on November 5, 2018. Ryan told him there was a hit out for him, and they were going to go through with it.

Jeff remortgaged his home as the debts incurred by his son increased. Financial crisis was immanent. He sent two final and separate installments to a prisoner extortionist. Then he would practice tough love.  He told the aggressors to leave Ryan alone.

The family visited Ryan at Fountain Correctional Facility near Atmore, Alabama in mid-December. The last time they ever saw him he had two black eyes. On December 21, 2018, Ryan was found dead, hanging by a belt in his jail cell.

The 33-year-old’s death was ruled a suicide.

The family has doubt.

Now, they worry a hit might be out for them, and that’s why they carry guns all the time. Harmony allowed these guys to friend her on Facebook. Now, they know what she looks like, her kids look like, and to make matters worse, she lives in a small town.

Cell phone extortion is a “common practice” in many prisons throughout the United States. It’s an old practice as well. In the olden days, back before we had the magical devices known as cell phones, many inmates carried out extortion through payphones.

The senior attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, Sarah Geraghty, explained to Oxygen.com that this is not an uncommon practice. She estimated there are probably tens of thousands of cell phones, stuck anywhere imaginable in prisons nationwide.   

“Unfortunately, it’s something we hear about with some regularity. A family member will get a call from a loved one and they’ll get a threat that something terrible will happen … and the threat is your loved one will be injured or your loved one will be killed.”

It’s also a well-known and logical step to believe that some corrections officers and prison workers are responsible for the illicit flow of smartphones. Geraghty continued her line of thinking:

“It’s beyond debate that they come from a number of sources. They come from officers, they come from other prison staff workers like food delivery people, in some instances they come from incarcerated family members or loved ones, and in some cases they are thrown over a perimeter fence.”

The creative ways they come in are beyond imaginable. In Clayton, Alabama guards found, and seized, a basketball containing 16 mobile phones.

One night the ball had been tossed over the prison fence, so guards couldn’t see the person who threw it. Other ways that have been known to deliver the cell phones are through drones, or carcasses of dead animals tossed over the prison walls.

In Buford, Georgia, guards found a dead cat that had its belly stitched up. They opened it and found eight cell phones in the cat.

In 2020, the creativity to smuggle phones into prisons doesn’t end there according to Forbes. The phones are smuggled into prisons through the mail, visitors to the prison, corrupt correctional officers, and, more recently, by drones that drop them on prison yards.

In January of 2020, Federal Correctional Institutions Miami prison staff confiscated over 50 cell phones in a single day. The Federal Bureau of Prisons operates over 122 institutional compounds across the country.

At Hancock State Prison, a basketball filled with 50 cellphones was rolled through a hole in a perimeter fence. A guard at the same prison allegedly tried to smuggle in a phone wrapped in aluminum foil, disguised as a baked potato.

It’s nearly impossible to stop the steady stream of such devices. They try using frequent sweeps, K9 dogs, infrared cameras, and many electronic equipment to detect cell phones. All of these things have proven to be ineffective. What can be expected from understaffed facilities? Prisoners can easily exploit the security oversights.

The Alabama Department of Corrections tries to eliminate contraband. They organize and run scale raids to sweep the prisons clean to rest them. Rose, the state correctional spokesperson, added.

“We organize and run large-scale raids to sweep facilities clean to try to ‘reset them.’ We recognize that there likely is a significant number of phones that go undiscovered during sweeps due to the nature of our dilapidated facilities.”

The ADOC knows that prison staff is complicit in these kinds of things, and the department tries to get rid of persistent staff corruption.  

Terry Peltz, a former Texas prison Warden and adjunct instructor of Criminal Justice at the Downtown location of the University of Houston explained to Oxygen.com:

“I liken bringing in a cell phone [into prison] to that of bringing in a gun.”

It’s a felony offense to smuggle cell phones into Texas prisons. Trafficking the pirated cell phones to inmates is a violent business, and a person can make killer money doing it. He furthers his explanation:

“Most [smartphones] are used to further criminal enterprises by prison gangs, order hits on the outside. Inmates also use them to extort from other inmates by threatening their families … When you’re short staffed, as most prisons are, more contraband gets in.” 

Some ideas that have been tossed around by the Justice Department is a strategy to block cell signals on cell blocks using signal jammers. But, this long-proposed idea could be a safety hazard, and violates the regulations put in place by the FCC. Peltz explains that a little more, and shows his frustration with our dear friends in Congress:

“The problem before with the FCC is that jamming caused others in the adjacent areas of the free world to be affected. Congress was supposed to act on that. It just kind of went away.”  

As most things do.

The Cell Phone Jamming Reform Act in 2019 would allow states and federal prisons to operate jammers. It, of course, didn’t happen. Perhaps, it was because they were too busy trying to falsely indict President Trump instead of, maybe actually running the United States.

When asked about Ryan Rust, the Alabama Corrections Officials said that they don’t tolerate any extortion, and they never received any complaints from the Rust Family.

The Rust family, however, doesn’t believe that his death was a suicide.

Ryan had struck a plea deal that that would have let him out in the Fall of 2019. He had a girlfriend and they found a home to move into. They had everything planned out, and a lot to look forward to.

What happened after Ryan’s death leads them to believe that his death was murder. His family received messages from both prisoners and staff. Some hinted that it wasn’t a suicide. His sister said that she received several texts and messages from inmates who knew Ryan. They all said he didn’t kill himself.

Now, a class action lawsuit has been filed by the Rust Family, and the relatives of three other inmates who allegedly died of suicide while in jail, against the ADOC. Additionally, the Rusts family plan to file a wrongful death civil suit against the state. 

Jeff Rust told Oxygen.com:

“It’s terrible. Sometimes I’m up all night. I want answers. I want to know who’s responsible, I want to know the damn truth. I want justice for my son. It won’t bring him back but maybe it will save somebody else’s son, or somebody else’s father.”

This menacing problem is not exclusive to Alabama. Extortion through cell phones are such a hot commodity nationwide that they are being confiscated by the thousands. According to the AJC.com in 2012 there were a number of cases nationwide such as:

  • In Texas, a death row inmate who killed four people used a cellphone to threaten a state senator.
  • In Nevada, a prison dental assistant was convicted of helping an inmate get a cellphone to escape.
  • In South Carolina, a captain in charge of intercepting prison contraband was the victim of a hit. He was shot six times in the chest at his home after an inmate used a cellphone to call an ex-con to kill him.
  • Brian Nichols, the Fulton County courthouse killer, who was convicted of killing a judge, used a cell phone to plot escape and send dirty pictures of himself to his pen-pal girlfriend.
  • California prison officials found a cellphone on mass murderer Charles Manson.
  • In 2020 there was a prisoner who had the audacity to livestream on Facebook the inside of a prison in Atlanta.
  • In mid-April a prisoner at Ft. Dix showed the conditions of the prison during Covid-19. The video showed social distancing within the confines of the prison was impossible.

 

 Vice published a video taken by an inmate at FCI Elkton. Six inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 there have died in the past 30 days and many more have obviously been infected. The video of the plea for help by the inmate from prison is powerful.

In Georgia, it’s a felony to smuggle a cellphone into a prison.  

Owens said flatly when asked about what the biggest problems was in jails in 2012:

“It’s not our budget, not staffing, not infrastructure, not overcrowding, it’s cellphones.”

This is echoed in 2020.

The cell phone problem in prisons was listed as one of the top challenges for the BOP in a U.S. Department of Justice Office of Inspector General report last October..

Congress passed the Contraband Cell Phone Act that bans cell phones in prisons by inmates or other unauthorized people. Maybe the janitor or something.

Once a cell phone or an iPad is confiscated, it is sent to BOP’s Forensic Laboratory in Washington, D.C. This is where the technicians use forensic software to extract information. This information includes phone calls (the ones they dial and the ones they receive), text messages and images stored on both the phone’s internal memory and SD card.

The cell phones, the technology we have become the most dependent on can also be our downfall. They are a weapon that many use against police officers, other criminals, and the families of other criminals. Victims are no longer safe. The justice system cannot protect them as long as cell phones continue streaming into the prisons. What is more horrifying is that Congress could approve ways to help stop them and save many lives, but there’s no interest in the little people of our nation. They don’t want prisoners to be safe, or the police. They don’t care about Ryan Rust, or the other people who have died.

All Congress cares about is putting Donald J. Trump in jail. Maybe, if they are successful, he will be able to obtain a cellphone, and then congress will get off their ass and do something. Too bad that will never happen.

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