Inside the fences of the Mississippi State Penitentiary lies a world few understand unless they’ve been behind bars themselves.
But while many serving sentences are working to improve themselves, others prefer to carry on their criminal activities behind bars.
Those activities have a north Mississippi woman pleading for her inmate son’s safety while in disbelief over the corrections investigation that continues.
“I don’t want them to beat you up," Jo Ann said to her son, who's currently serving a six-year sentence at Parchman.
His reply came quick and cold.
“Well, that’s what’s gonna happen. It’s too late now. You’ve done screwed that up," the inmate said.
Almost daily, Jo Ann hears from her son. Most of the time, the conversations turn to money -- how he needs it, and how others inside will make him pay if he doesn’t get it.
On this particular day in mid-July, the inmate, whose name is being withheld for his safety, has asked for $450 by the end of the day.
Jo Ann, however, has come up short.
“You ain’t got nowhere close to what I need, do you?” the inmate said.
Jo Ann replied through tears that she doesn't.
The inmate's fear turns to anger.
"Thank you. Thank you so [expletive] much," he said.
Jo Ann then asked her son if he wants her water to be cut off.
"It's better than getting me -- they're gonna have me dead," the inmate said. "What would you rather have happen?"
Each time the inmate calls, Jo Ann said her son tells her how much to send and where to send it.
Since June, she's sent more than $1,400 through money transfers at Walmart.
"And they want $1500 by [August] 1 or they're threatening to kill him. We can't afford this money. I can't afford to give him the $450 today, so I gotta sit back and wonder what they're doing to my son," Jo Ann said. "I'm powerless. I've called everybody trying to get them to help me."
That's when she called 3 On Your Side to investigate the money trail.
Our analysis revealed those transfers went to several people in cities all over Mississippi, including Laurel, Brookhaven, Columbus and Okolona.
The extortion attempts didn't stop there, though.
Jo Ann said someone gained access to her son's prepaid debit card and kept withdrawing money.
Financial records show $850 transferred that way.
Why was this money being sent to eleven people all over the state?
A public records search of most of the eleven recipients turned over several numbers, most of which were disconnected when we called, except one.
"We have proof of two Walmart to Walmart transfers made on the 19 and 20 of [July], made out to a Lekisha Sceals. We wanted to know if you knew anything about that," the reporter said.
Lekisha Sceals told us she didn't know Jo Ann or her inmate son.
“Uh-uh. Well, we deal with reupholstery and folks. Maybe his relative is dealing with me. I deal with upholstery. Maybe his relative purchased something from me," Sceals said.
Sceals refuted the claim that she had received any money.
“I’m kind of stunned," Sceals said. "It would be real strange, because there’s a lot of fraud going on, going around. Somebody else could have pretend (sic) to be me.”
To receive that money through Walmart, a company employee told us customers must show a valid ID that matches the name.
Our records show Lekisha Sceals as the recipient, and both transfers had to be claimed by someone with a matching ID.
We also asked if Sceals knew another one of the recipients of the money because they shared the same last name. Walmart records show $375 sent to that person through the inmate’s debit card.
Lekisha told us she didn't know that person, but a search of her Facebook posts revealed the person is Lekisha's daughter.
Searching through public records revealed another connection with Lekisha: an inmate at Parchman who's housed in the same unit as Jo Ann's son.
When asked if she was related to that inmate, Lekisha wouldn't say definitively, but those who know her in Okolona said the inmate is her brother.
Property records also show the two lived in the same house for at least two years in Okolona.
Jo Ann believes the money, once sent to these recipients, is then passed on to their incarcerated relatives.
"It has to be people that they know, and then they get it to them," Jo Ann added.
For weeks, Jo Ann said she tried telling people at the Mississippi Department of Corrections about all this, but said nobody took her seriously.
"They're not investigating, they're not doing nothing. It's being done, and I'm proof of it," Jo Ann said.
We reached out to MDOC to let them know of Jo Ann's concerns in detail on July 20.
A week later, MDOC Commissioner Pelicia Hall released a statement exclusively to WLBT, saying the department has investigated numerous similar allegations from inmates' family members.
"In many cases, our investigations have revealed that inmates are a part of the scheme. Such is the case of the matter that was brought to our attention by WLBT," the statement said. "During that investigation, the inmate provided a statement admitting he orchestrated the scheme to defraud money from his family."
Jo Ann doesn't believe that.
She said her son was forced to give that statement out of fear for his life.
"He would not make us go without like that. He would not do that to us. He said I'm not in on it. He said, 'I'm getting beat up for it,'" Jo Ann said.
Last month, we asked for statistics on extortion attempts from MDOC to see how often this happens, but spokesperson Grace Fisher responded that the department doesn't keep that information, even though a cursory glace at the department's website reveals a division that investigates, in part, extortion claims.
As far as this case goes, Fisher said there is no evidence any other inmates were involved.
Should charges come against those eleven people who received money in this extortion attempt, it would have to be from district attorneys in those areas.
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