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Editorial: A culture in need of canceling — contraband prison cellphone calls

Cell phones

Cellphones and other contraband seized during a search are laid out on a table at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville. Contraband has long been a problem that has fueled disputes and resulted in lawsuits in South Carolina prisons. File/S.C. Department of Corrections/Provided

The illegal use of cellphones by inmates not only ranks as the No. 1 public safety threat within South Carolina's prisons, but arguably ranks as the top public safety threat across the state, period. At least that's the view of Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, and he may be right.

Recall the largest RICO case in the state's history — which unfolded in December when four inmates were accused of using illicit cellphones to arrange murder, kidnapping, gun distribution and international drug deals. About five months earlier, another inmate serving time for armed robbery and burglary was charged with ordering a hit on a person in Columbia. In 2019, the state's largest narcotics conspiracy investigation netted 100 suspects, including six inmates — allegedly gang members running a drug ring behind prison walls. In 2010, Capt. Robert Johnson of Lee Correction Institution was shot in a hit ordered from a cellphone inside the very prison where he was enforcing contraband rules. Sadly, there are many more such stories.

Fortunately, the Federal Communications Commission finally appears to  have found a promising avenue that will let states shut down these illicit, unmonitored conversations.

Unfortunately, it has taken more than a decade to get here, largely a result of Congress' inability to agree to allow phone jamming inside state prisons — the kind of jamming already allowed at federal correctional sites. Many believe this failure simply reflects how the cellphone industry can throw far more cash Congress' way than state prison directors can; that's probably the case, though we should note that the FCC ruling was penned after last year's appropriations bill directed the agency to adopt rules to require wireless carriers to disable contraband devices. 

The FCC's breakthrough also came after the same cellphone industry found a new, more surgical solution it could accept. Here's how it will work: Each cellphone has a unique ID number (different from its phone number). The FCC will allow antennas inside prisons that will be the first to capture calls made there, and the state can use that data to learn those unique ID numbers from active phones on prison grounds. The prisons then can share those numbers with cellphone providers, who will be required to add them to the stolen cellphone database and shut down the phones within two days.

Of course, inmates can attempt to get new phones — and drone technology makes contraband deliveries more challenging for prison wardens to stop — but Mr. Stirling notes that contraband phones cost a few thousand dollars. A successful effort to identify and shut them down in a few days could price them out of most prisoners' reach.

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"This should work. This should shut the phones down," Mr. Stirling tells us. "This will be incredible for prison safety and public safety."

The FCC is beginning a 30-day comment period, followed by another 60-day reply period, and we urge the agency and our congressional leaders to do what they can to speed along this review. We applaud FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel's movement on this and her apparent willingness to take further action, if necessary.

South Carolina already has hired an outside expert to advise on what type of equipment and training its prison system will need when this new rule takes effect, possibly later this year. We urge Mr. Stirling to carefully oversee that process so the state can quickly purchase, install and activate what it needs.

Of course, it's important for inmates to be able to keep in touch with friends and family on the outside, but South Carolina's prisons already offer a reasonably priced way to do so: Inmates are charged about 83 cents for a 15-minute call, and Mr. Stirling notes that those calls may now be placed from tablets in the privacy of a prison cell, rather than from a more public pay phone.

The FCC's 88-page order appears to be the biggest breakthrough to date to combat a problem that should have been solved years ago. Let's make it work.

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