FCC: Signals Aren't The Problem In Prisons

FCC says prisons need to keep cell phone out

Patrick Gentry
December 04, 2017 - 4:03 pm
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South Carolina prison officials have been pushing the Federal Communications Commission for several years to allow cell phone signals at prisons to be jammed.

“This is a very real public safety threat,” Department of Corrections Director Bryan Sterling told South Carolina Radio Network..

But it would require FCC approval to jam phone signals, and the agency has made it clear in the past that current law does not allow it to give non-federal agencies jamming power.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn says she is concerned that interfering with cell phone signals at prisons will affect cell phone users in the surrounding area.

“We will not . . . do anything that will harm the abilities of the surrounding communities and within the correctional facilities to be able to dial 911, to be able to have legitimate conversations,”  she said. “That is a tradeoff with those negative consequences I’m unwilling to make.”

“I believe technology has advanced enough where that no longer is a concern,” Stirling said in response. He has been investigating ways to control cell phone access and use in South Carolina’s prisons for several years. A corrections officer was severely injured in a 2010 shooting orchestrated by a prisoner using a contraband cell phone at Lee Correctional Institution.

“Today with technology and cell phones, these folks are physically incarcerated but as we see over and over with crimes being committed by using these phones, these folks are no longer virtually incarcerated and they can reach out from behind bars and continue their criminal ways,” he said.

However, Clyburn says prisons need to control access to the contraband phones instead of focusing on jamming them once they are already inside.

“All of us have a role to play when it comes to ensuring that these contraband cell phones are not on the grounds of these correctional facilities,” she said. “The facilities have to do what it takes to make sure they’re not coming in the front door.”

She said, based on her research, “We’re not having a series of drones dropping these phones on these — inside of these facilities. A lot of these phones are walking in the doors. We know that and we need to make sure the protocols are being realized.”

But Stirling said the massive demand for phones makes it a certainty inmates will find a way to smuggle them inside undetected. “I can see from my own eyes, we have had officers, staff arrested,” Stirling said. “We’ve had people on the outside arrested for the smuggling these in. The bottom line is, if these phones don’t work, there’s no reason to smuggle them in because they’re worthless.”

After years of testimony and trips to Washington, Stirling said his campaign is getting somewhere. About 50 members of Congress, including South Carolina’s contingent, wrote letters to the FCC in support of blocking cell phone signals at prisons and the FCC has responded.

Stirling said he’s awaiting another meeting date to be set with the FCC to discuss a solution. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai visited Lee Correctional Facility several years ago.

“We’re more than happy to talk and educate the FCC and show them that the technology does exist and there will not be a bleedover anymore that was a concern in previous years,” he said. “I’m hopeful that we’re making progress on this front. We’re not going to stop until we achieve our goal which is not allowing unfettered access to the outside world by folks that are incarcerated.

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