Jam prison cell signals, officials say

MAYA T. PRABHU/STAFF FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai and Gov. Nikki Haley hosted a forum Wednesday to discuss solutions to the continuing issue of contraband cellphones in prisons.

COLUMBIA — Charleston County Assistant Sheriff Mitch Lucas told a roomful of law enforcement officers, politicians and wireless company officials it’s a shame that in 2016 prisons haven’t solved the issue of contraband cellphones.

“Quite frankly I am absolutely astonished ... that we’re still talking about this,” Lucas said Wednesday during a forum with Gov. Nikki Haley and representatives from the Federal Communications Commission. “We’re talking about implementation of a law that’s over 75 years old, when technology was completely different.”

Lucas was one of several panelists who spoke during the forum hosted by Haley and FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai to discuss solutions for the continuing problem of cellphones being smuggled into prisons where inmates are using them to contact the outside world, including to do harm.

The most consistent solution from panelists was to jam the cellular signal inside correctional facilities so no one can use the devices while inside.

Regulators have said that a 1934 law allows only federal agencies to jam public airwaves. And cellphone companies have argued that the jamming methods suggested by South Carolina and other states could interfere with emergency communications and other legal cellphone use.

But former Lee Correctional Institution Capt. Robert Johnson said he is a living testimony of why jamming needs to be done. Johnson was shot six times at his home in what was determined to be a hit ordered with a contraband cellphone from inside Lee.

Johnson blamed the telecommunications industry for blocking changes to the law.

“They can fly a plane, unmanned, from here to Afghanistan or wherever, shoot a bomb down a four-foot shaft, blow it up — and you going to tell me we can’t do cellphone technology blocking?” Johnson questioned the room. “Come on.”

Phones are known to get into state facilities a number of ways, including being smuggled in, thrown over a fence and, in some recent instances, dropped by drones flying over the prison. Just last year the state Department of Corrections confiscated more than 4,000 cellphones and accessories, Haley said.

Haley said when the forum with Pai was announced, she began to receive calls from officials in Congress asking her not to host the discussion.

“What you’ve got is members of D.C. saying, ‘we’re not opening up the (telecommunications) bill,’ ” Haley said. “And what we’re saying is, who is it that you’re protecting? Because go to your state, whichever state you may represent, and ask the governor of your state whether there are offenses that are happening with cellphones.”

Gerard Keegan, assistant vice president with CTIA The Wireless Association, formerly the Cellular Telephone Industries Association, said that while jamming is often considered the best solution to contraband cellphones, the public safety risk of blocking all use inside prison remains too great.

“When discussing potential solutions to the contraband phone problem, jammers cannot and should not be on the table,” he said.

SCDC Director Bryan Stirling said the dozens of interim solutions they’ve instituted at facilities — including installing towers and instituting pat-downs — can never be as effective as jamming the airwaves. He said citing the need for 911 calls from inside a prison to outside of one, is a distraction.

“I just don’t see how the industry can sit here and look at Captain Johnson and his wife and repeat the same solutions they’ve been repeating for the past 10 years,” Stirling said. “If we keep on hearing the same red herring then we’re going to be here in 10 years and there’s going to another Captain Johnson and there’s going to be another Captain Johnson and another.”

The FCC in 2013 discussed several options for ways to help the country’s prisons, ranging from establishing guidelines for facilities to work with cellphone providers, to allowing signals to be blocked on the property. However, there has been no movement on those proposals since.

Pai said he hopes he’s able to take the information gathered in Wednesday’s hearing back to the FCC and spur them to action.

“I believe it’s far too long a time for us to be sitting around waiting on a solution,” he said.

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.