South Carolina

SC attorney general, prisons chief renew call to jam cellphones at state prisons

COLUMBIA, SC (WCSC) – Drug trafficking, human trafficking and prison riots are all crimes law enforcement has linked to South Carolina inmates getting their hands on cell phones behind bars.

The head of the state prison system has tried to block the signals to these phones for years, but to no avail.

“This is about mobile phones and you’ve heard us talk about it again and again. These people are fighting for real money and real territory after they’re incarcerated,” South Carolina Department of Justice director Bryan Stirling said in 2018 after seven inmates were killed in a riot at Lee Correctional Institution near Bishopville.

Law enforcement authorities blamed cell phones as a major cause of the deadly seven-hour riot.

“I think it’s the number one public safety threat in the country,” Stirling said last week. “That’s what a sheriff told me the other day.”

Earlier this month, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson announced that 43 people had been charged in a multi-state drug trafficking where prosecutors said inmates coordinated with cellphones.

“In the last five years, we’ve blown up four major drug trafficking rings behind the prisons,” Wilson said. “Prison cells are no place for cellphones and we need to stop it.”

Last week, Wilson sent a letter to congressional leaders, co-signed by more than 20 other attorneys general, urging lawmakers to pass legislation that would allow states to jam cellphone signals in their prisons.

The federal government can do this in federal prisons, but federal law prohibits states from doing the same.

Critics worry that electricity could also block signals for people who live and work nearby.

“I think that was possible once,” Stirling said. “But now, with advances in technology and equipment, that is no longer possible. I think it’s a red herring.”

Stirling said they had taken steps to try to keep illegal phones out of jails in the first place, including adding scanners and x-rays at entrances and installing nets to stop throwing, and they were working on implementing drone detection technology .

But he said the best solution is to disable those phones.

“If we could just jam those cell phones the way federal prisons are capable of jamming those cell phones, a lot of it would go away almost overnight,” he said.

But Stirling said there could be a middle ground.

Last year, the FCC passed a rule allowing state prison systems to shut down illegal cell phone signals within five days of identifying them.

Stirling said South Carolina has applied for it and has been certified, but is not yet in a position to actually do so.

“All I want from the FCC right now is some sort of answer as to how long this is going to take, and we can’t get that answer. I need to know,” Stirling said.

The FCC did not respond to a request for comment as of Monday night.

Wilson said he believes the federal government is encroaching on police powers and state rights to protect its citizens by not allowing them to jam phones.

The Attorney General said he was unsure at this point if that was grounds for future legal action, adding he would rather work with the federal government on the matter than fight it.

“For me, all options are on the table when it comes to protecting the people of this state,” Wilson said.

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