It is an indisputable fact that prisoners continue to use contraband cell phones to stay in contact with their criminal associates on the outside. But so far the federal government hasn’t been willing to allow state prison officials to block those cell phone signals despite the capacity of technology to do so.
The case of former state prison Capt. Robert Johnson, who in 2010 was shot six times, underscores the necessity of keeping the pressure on the feds — specifically the Federal Communications Commission.
The “hit” on Mr. Johnson was believed to have been initiated by cell phone from the Lee Correctional Institute in Bishopville, where he worked. His lawsuit to have cellular providers held liable for his assault is currently on appeal.
The FCC has yet to acquiesce to the requests for jamming authority by prison officials across the nation. That’s a pity. The technology has been improved so that jamming can be done very precisely in an area — like a prison — without interfering with other cell phone calls, including emergency calls.
So for now people like Mr. Johnson remain vulnerable to inmates who manage to get cell phones. Last year, around 3,000 illegal cell phones were confiscated in state prisons.
Meanwhile, William Byars, director of the S.C. Department of Corrections, has overseen alternate measures to try to stem the flow of contraband cell phones in prisons.
For example, prison officials are trying to work more closely with local law enforcement agencies — usually county police. Now, staff at the prisons and in local law enforcement agencies are communicating with each other, and sharing information that might be helpful.
Local police are also patrolling the perimeters of prisons more often to stop people from tossing cell phones, drugs and other contraband over the fence to inmates.
Further, prisons are now equipped with new, portable machines that detect cell phones. People who enter or leave prisons continue to be screened. But these new machines allow officials to go cell-to-cell and screen for cell phones.
Although a federal judge dismissed his lawsuit against 20 cellphone companies and cellular tower owners, Mr. Johnson is optimistic about his appeal. He contends that these companies had the ability to block inmate calls. His main obstacle is a 1934 law that allows only federal agencies to jam public airwaves, and the FCC hasn’t made an exception for state prisons.
His obstacle is South Carolina’s obstacle. The progress being made with help from local police authorities and new screening equipment is to be applauded.
But being able to jam illicit cell phone signals in prisons could put contraband phone crimes out of business.