Slimantics: Through the lens of Willie Nash's cellphone, stories of contraband


Slim Smith



Today's topic is prison contraband and what happens to you when you're caught with it -- or rather what happened when Willie Nash got caught with it.


When I first hard of Nash, I began to draw on my own experiences as Arizona Department of Corrections inmate 215980 during the spring and early summer of 2007.


Thirteen years later, I don't often dwell on that experience, but from time to time something happens that takes me back there.



The story of Willie Nash stirred my memory. Nash, a 39-year-old married father of three, was sentenced to 12 years in prison when he was found in possession of a cellphone after being booked into the Newton County jail on a misdemeanor.


The discovery was not an example of great investigative work, apparently. The cellphone was discovered when Nash asked a jail employee if he could charge his phone, suggesting that Nash was unaware that he committed a felony by having the phone in his possession inside the jail.


In Mississippi, possessing contraband in jail is a felony that carries a sentence of 3 to 15 years, so Nash got a sentence closer to the maximum, even though it's pretty obvious, even from the jailers' account, that Nash was not trying to sneak the phone into jail.


The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled that the sentence was valid, but Nash's attorneys have filed a motion to reconsider. In the interest of decency, let's hope they do.


This story reminded me of my own encounters with contraband at Arizona's Florence West prison, where contraband items were commonplace.


On my first day at Florence West, an inmate took me aside and explained the rules. He wasn't talking about the rules the prison had established but those set by the inmates themselves. One of those rules, he said, was that inmates were not allowed to let their drug debt exceed $300.


I stared at him in disbelief, waiting for him to deliver the punchline for what I assumed to be a joke.


But it wasn't. He was serious. That was a big rule, he said.


A couple of days later, I saw for the first and only time in my life, someone injecting heroin. He sat on his bunk, shooting up in plain view in the middle of the afternoon.


In addition to drugs, there wasn't too much you couldn't get -- for a price. Contraband flowed into the prison, either from inmates who worked outside the prison during the day or from prison guards.


From our exercise yard, you could see the employee parking lot. Another inmate noted there were an awful lot of expensive vehicles in that lot, even though prison guards only made about $30,000 per year.


"What does that tell you?" he asked.


Prison officials probably knew the answer to that question so their response to contraband was to make as little fuss as possible. When someone was caught with contraband usually all that happened is that it was confiscated. If it was deemed serious contraband -- mainly drugs -- you got a week or so in "the hole," which meant solitary confinement. Nobody that I know of got any charges.


Now, I consider the case of poor Willie Nash. He got 12 years for bringing a cellphone into a county jail.


Is there any wonder then that Mississippi, were it an independent nation, would have the third highest incarceration rate in the world, based on data provided by the non-profit Prison Policy Institute?


Of course, the cynic would say that even if the state's Supreme Court doesn't rule in his favor, Nash won't really serve 12 years.


After all, who stays alive that long in Mississippi's state prisons these days?




Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]


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