DAPHNE, Ala. — The terrifying calls and texts to the Rust family began soon after Ryan Rust became an inmate in the Alabama correctional system. Before long, his relatives were arming themselves for protection.
“I bought an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and 1,000 rounds of ammo because things had become so serious,” Jeff Rust, his father, said. “These inmates have reach that goes way beyond the prison.”
That life-rattling reach is facilitated by the inmates’ relatively easy access to an item they supposedly forfeited once they entered the Alabama prison system: cellphones.
Extortion by prison pay phones has long been a problem. But illegal cellphones have facilitated the delivery of threats, vexing corrections officials across the country. Smuggling of the devices is common, often by prison workers eager for money, and jamming cellphone signals is not allowed because it would also disrupt 911 calls and other public safety communications.
Jeff Dunn, Alabama’s corrections commissioner, said the state’s prisons have tried to cut down on contraband, using surprise searches and phone-sniffing dogs, but phones keep getting in.
The state’s longtime failure to stem their proliferation has allowed inmates to use the devices to threaten and extort families of vulnerable prisoners. The typical threat — pay or your loved one gets hurt or even killed — is delivered by call or text. Images of the threat being carried out sometimes follow.
One such vulnerable prisoner was Ryan Rust, who was physically imposing, adorned with tattoos and saddled with a prescription-drug addiction. He served time in the Alabama prison system from late 2015 to late 2016 for property theft, and was back in prison by January 2018 after being convicted of rape.
“He lost privileges and was forced to go to other inmates who stockpile cigarettes and coffee, and they would charge him inflated prices,” his father recalled. “They would do the same for toothpaste, socks and deodorant. And the guards are in on it all.”
Then came the threats by phone: Pay up, or Ryan gets hurt.
The elder Mr. Rust, a 64-year-old towboat captain, said inmates would instruct him to use Western Union and other transfer services to send payments to their girlfriends, wives or other relatives, who would deposit the money into the men’s commissary accounts or keep it for themselves.
Ryan Rust also repeatedly called and texted — by cellphone, of course. “It got to a point where he was asking for money every day,” his father said.
The Alabama Department of Corrections said it never received an official complaint from the Rust family about any extortion, although his father said he had reported some of the incidents to prison officials.
Jeff Rust acknowledged that his son had tried to escape and attempt suicide, and probably owed money for drugs and the use of a cellphone. The threats became more than just words when Ryan was stabbed twice, his father said, over what he believes was an unpaid debt.
At first, the demands emanating from the Easterling medium-security prison in Clio were for $30 here, $50 there, Mr. Rust said. “But once they found out he could call his daddy for money, it got terrible.”
The extortion continued with Ryan’s transfer to the Bullock medium-security prison in Union Springs, where he was stabbed again, and from where the family received one of the more horrifying threats. “They were going to take baby oil and something else and heat it up in the microwave,” Mr. Rust said. “Then throw it on him if we didn’t pay.”
His father said that at times he could hear other Bullock inmates in the background during calls, giving his son instructions such as, “Tell Daddy to get the money here or I will stab you right now.”
He added that threats like these only increased when Ryan was moved to the Fountain medium-security prison in Atmore, where he was slashed.
Mr. Rust said that to pay the extortion money and some legal fees, he worked overtime and remortgaged his home. But his greatest anxiety came from answering the phone to hear strangers barking out fresh demands.
“The phone would ring, and I would jump like I’d been woken with a cattle prod,” he remembered. “I had a terrible time dealing with the stress.”
The calls became so frequent that Mr. Rust said he feared for his safety. In addition to buying a semiautomatic rifle and some ammunition, he had a security and surveillance system installed at his home.
His daughter Harmony Rust-Bodtke, 39, a businesswoman and the mother of four, also decided to arm herself. The many inmates she had been extorted by all knew her name, the nature of her business, and her home and work addresses.
“I started carrying in 2018 when the money amounts being demanded were getting larger, and I could tell from the situation that it was very bad,” Ms. Rust-Bodtke said.
Mr. Rust estimated that he paid more than $21,000 in response to the extortion attempts, mostly in the last year of his son’s imprisonment, sending money several times a week to an ever-changing cast of inmates. Some were more persistent than others, such as the man who had just received $3,000 — but wanted more.
“I told him it was over,” Mr. Rust recalled. “And he just said, ‘Ryan owed me a lot of money.’”
Finally, Mr. Rust and his daughter decided they would give only tough love to Ryan, and nothing more to their extortionists.
“The week I quit sending the money, inmates started beating him,” Mr. Rust said.
In 2018, four days before Christmas, Ryan Rust was found dead with a belt around his neck in his solitary cell at the Holman maximum-security prison in Atmore — a facility so notorious and dilapidated that the Alabama Department of Corrections has announced plans to partially decommission it.
Corrections officials determined that Ryan had killed himself. But his father and sister have their doubts, and regrets.
“We are shouldering a lot of guilt because we would get mad at him about the money and the extortion,” Mr. Rust said, his worn face streaked with tears.
Serge F. Kovaleski reported from Daphne, and Dan Barry from Springville, Ala.