Kelvin Melton is serving a life sentence in North Carolina’s most secure prison. He spends a typical day in a cell behind two locked doors. When he leaves, he’s escorted by two guards.
On Friday, Melton was charged with conspiring to commit a violent crime that occurred entirely outside prison walls. Now the state is investigating how a 49-year-old man may have bypassed all the protections of Polk Correctional Institution in Butner to help orchestrate the snatching of a prosecutor’s father from his home in Wake Forest.
A federal criminal complaint indicates a simple answer: Melton had a cellphone. An Eastern North Carolina number, area code 252, placed hundreds of calls and texts from inside Polk’s walls, possibly connecting Melton to his daughters and the five people accused of kidnapping Frank Janssen on the morning of April 5.
Melton’s alleged co-conspirators were charged Thursday with kidnapping. A federal complaint says that a woman hit Janssen with a stun gun at his home last Saturday and several people assaulted him before loading him into a rented car.
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Melton never left the prison gates. In fact, he may have been using a phone for more than a month before the kidnapping culminated Wednesday in a successful rescue in Atlanta by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Melton, also known as “Dizzy” and “Old Man,” apparently was patched into a network of phones associated with the crime, according to the criminal complaint.
George Solomon, director of prisons for North Carolina, said he could say little about the specifics of the case, but said it may be an example of an influx of mobile phones into prison facilities across the country.
“It is a problem – we’re continuing to combat it,” Solomon said. “Everyone is adversely impacted when phones are introduced to facilities.”
Sneaking phones in
In fact, prison authorities said the number of phone infractions by inmates in 2013 was more than 20 times the number in 2005. The state reported 747 cellphone infractions in 2013, down from a high of 863 in 2012.
Sometimes the phones arrive inside inflatable balls, like basketballs and footballs, that are thrown over lower-security prison fences, Solomon said. Sometimes they are carried through the gate, stuffed in sandwiches or hidden in books, by visitors, guards or inmates returning from court. Most are older flip-phones, though BlackBerrys and iPhones are appearing, too.
Administrators have responded by introducing 48 portable metal detectors, at $10,000 each, that can pick up components of electronic devices. The state also has trained dogs to sniff out phones.
While lower-security inmates are allowed to use monitored pay phones to call outside the prison, those under the strictest security are restricted to the postal system. Even their visitors are kept at a distance, with personal contact forbidden.
With a contraband phone, inmates may communicate between prisons or stay connected to gangs outside the facility, according to state officials.
“In our experience, the phones are utilized for continuing behavior they did on the street,” Solomon said.
He hopes that a recent drop in the number of phone infractions means the state’s new efforts are working. A 2009 law made it a misdemeanor to provide a mobile phone to an inmate, and the 48 portable sensors were put into circulation in the state’s 59 prisons in 2012 and 2013.
But people with insurmountably steep sentences – such as life in prison – have little reason to stop trying.
“There’s not much motivation for the inmate not to want to be caught with a cellphone,” Solomon said.
Melton has been cited for a series of infractions during his time in North Carolina’s prison system, which began in October 2012.
In the past year, he has been cited twice for having an audio or video device, once for unauthorized tobacco use, twice for lock tampering and once for possession of a weapon, according to prison records.
Melton’s criminal record dates to 1982, when he was convicted in New York of first-degree robbery; he was convicted of first-degree manslaughter there in 1998.
Prosecutors contended that Melton led a subset of the Bloods gang in New York, and that in September 2011 he sent a man to kill a former lover’s new boyfriend in Raleigh. The man was shot but survived.
Melton was convicted in 2012 of being a violent habitual felon and conspiracy for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill, though he was acquitted of attempted murder, according to criminal records.
Solomon declined to say whether Melton has been moved from his cell in Butner.