Add to the list of reasons why the Federal Communications Commission should allow state prison officials to jam cellphones signals a South Carolina prison-based “sextortion” ring that prosecutors say bilked 442 military personnel out of at least $560,000.
That outrageous scam joins other scandals and crimes like the attempted murder of a prison guard orchestrated by cellphone. Or the two-time escapee who ginned up $50,000 online, then had a drone deliver him wire cutters. Or the deadly April 15 riot at Lee prison blamed in part on cellphones.
The list goes on and on, but the FCC has yet to budge, and Congress hasn’t moved to amend an outdated 1934 law that bans the “willful or malicious interference to authorized radio communications.”
But at some point, lawmakers have to ask what it means to lock up criminals if they still have the outside world in the palm of their hands.
The latest con — duping service members into sending X-rated photos of themselves, then using a third party to demand a payoff under the threat of reporting the exchange as a crime — is just a tiny slice of criminal pie carved up by prisoners with plenty of time and bandwidth.
Five S.C. prisoners and nine alleged abettors are charged in the latest case. Prosecutors say prisoners impersonating young women on a dating site would send racy photos to military members in exchange for nude photos of themselves. An outsider posing as parent would then contact the marks, say the young women were actually juveniles and threaten to report the supposedly illicit exchange unless they paid a price, which they did. Payoffs averaged more than $1,200 each.
“We do not lock up prisoners only to let them continue their criminal conduct,” U.S. Attorney Sherri Lydon said in announcing the charges. But that’s what happens. And the additional cost of prosecuting a prisoner is passed on to taxpayers.
For years, South Carolina prisons chief Bryan Stirling and his predecessor Jon Ozmint have pleaded with the FCC and Congress to allow cellphone jamming, but to no avail. To get the ball rolling, Mr. Ozmint has said, the U.S. Attorney’s Office could simply issue a legal opinion that says cellphone calls from prison aren’t “authorized radio communications.”
That seems obvious enough.
Since the April 15 Lee prison riot in which seven inmates were killed, the Department of Corrections has spent millions of dollars on initiatives meant to intercept contraband cellphones or disable the thousands already behind bars. Among them is a three-year, $1.5 million contract for a “managed access” cellphone system at Lee prison. Other signal-blocking technologies also are emerging, but they are far more complicated and costly than jamming technology.
State prison officials will continue to grapple with the problem the best they can, but Congress and the FCC have to act soon. Otherwise, criminals will remain able to keep up a criminal lifestyle, even from behind bars.