COLUMBIA, S.C. — Nearly three dozen people are charged with being part of a methamphetamine ring run by South Carolina prison inmates who used smuggled cellphones, state prosecutors said Tuesday.

The state grand jury indictments announced by Attorney General Alan Wilson accuse 34 people of operating multiple, connected drug trafficking operations across the state. Charges range from methamphetamine and heroin trafficking to weapons crimes, prosecutors said.

The defendants include two inmates at maximum-security state prisons. According to Wilson, inmates at prisons in Columbia and Bishopville — about 50 miles (about 80 km) northeast of the capital city — led the criminal conspiracy, using contraband cellphones to direct drug deliveries, sales and payments with people on the outside.

Combatting contraband prison cellphones — which are smuggled by visitors, thrown over fences and even delivered by drone — has been a top priority for South Carolina corrections officials. For years, the state has asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to jam cell signals at its prisons, rendering useless any cellphones possessed by inmates.

Earlier this year, Corrections Director Bryan Stirling traveled to Washington to lobby members of Congress on the issue, accompanied by a former corrections officer nearly killed in a hit that authorities said had been organized by an illegal cellphone behind bars.

The cellphone industry strongly opposes jamming the signals, out of concern it could lead to wider gaps in their networks. The proposal hasn’t been approved, although FCC officials including Chairman Ajit Pai have said they’re sympathetic to the concern.

The people charged in Tuesday’s case live in the Carolinas and Georgia, and one is from California. Most have been arrested, although authorities said they were still seeking five of the accused.

It wasn’t clear when any of them would appear in court or if they had attorneys.


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