An agreement reached in the nation's capital this week could aid South Carolina's efforts to shut down the thousands of illegal cellphones that infest the state's prisons and fuel crimes behind bars.
Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said telecommunications companies agreed Monday to participate in limited testing of technologies that could block signals from the contraband phones, a measure the industry has long opposed.
The pledge came out of a meeting hosted by the Federal Communications Commission and attended by several states' prison chiefs and wireless industry officials. It came just weeks after a deadly riot at a South Carolina prison that has been at least partly blamed on contraband cellphones.
Stirling said he has volunteered Lee Correctional Institution, where the riot took place, as a potential test site.
Illegal cellphones have been a chronic problem in prisons across the country. In South Carolina, they've been used to arrange a contract killing of a prison officer, plot an escape and conduct all manner of fraud. Fighting over such contraband helped spark a riot that killed seven and wounded 22 at Lee on April 15, officials have said, and inmates used their illicit phones to stoke the unrest.
Seizures of contraband phones are up, and last week federal prosecutors indicted 14 former state Corrections Department employees on smuggling charges. But even with 6,200 phones seized from the state's prisons last year, the devices remain ubiquitous.
The telecommunications industry has long opposed jamming cell signals, saying that could interfere with legal cell users nearby. But several companies, including Verizon, A&T, Sprint and T-Mobile, agreed to join in tests of various platforms that can jam all calls or simply unauthorized ones, Stirling said.
To accomplish broader change, proponents would still need to change a decades-old law that limits the ability to jam public airwaves to federal agencies. Still, they would likely have a better chance of that if cellphone companies were on board, Stirling said.
"That is all part of the discussion, to see if they will work with us to effectuate that change," he said. "But it was still a giant step to have them even agree to testing."
The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association and the Association of State Correctional Administrators issued a joint statement after the meeting hailing "the beginning of an important partnership" to eliminate the dangers posed by contraband phones.