Forum to tackle cellphones in prisons problem

The Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday will hold a forum with the S.C. Department of Corrections, wireless providers and victims advocates to discuss curbing contraband cellphones making it into the prison system.

COLUMBIA — Having a cellphone in prison is the equivalent of having a weapon, according to S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling. Offenders use the phones to communicate with those outside prison and sometimes can arrange for harm to be done to others, he said.

Stirling will be part of a panel discussion with the Federal Communications Commission this week looking for ways to address the issue of cellphones being smuggled into prisons. The discussion will also include wireless providers and victim advocates.

Stirling said an inmate getting caught with a cellphone or other communication device while in jail is one of the most serious offenses.

“I consider these cellphones a weapon,” he said.

In 2015, the state Department of Corrections reported 1,610 incidents involving cellphones or their accessories, such as chargers or batteries. That number is up from last year’s 1,517 reported incidents but down from 2011, when SCDC reported 1,941 cases.

“Cellphones allow these folks to continue their criminal ways,” Stirling said. “It gives offenders unfettered access to the outside world, which we all know could result in deadly force being used.”

Stirling pointed to the 2010 shooting of former Lee Correctional Institution Capt. Robert Johnson, which is said to have been ordered by an inmate who used a smuggled cellphone.

Stirling said phones can get into state facilities a number of ways, including being smuggled in, thrown over the fence or, in some recent instances, being dropped by drones flying over the prison.

“Offenders have all day and all the time in the world to figure out ways to smuggle phones in,” he said.

Phones being smuggled into prisons is not a problem that’s unique to South Carolina, and the state’s instances of confiscated contraband mirror those of other states a FCC commissioner said he’s worked with.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai will be in Columbia on Wednesday for the forum hosted by Gov. Nikki Haley where he plans to gather information about what the government can do to help corrections facilities combat contraband cellphones.

“The purpose of this forum is to bring the issue back to the FCC’s and the public’s radar,” Pai said. “I hope to pin down solutions that the FCC or others in this space could adopt to once and for all solve this problem.”

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 South Carolina was an ideal place for the forum because the state has taken steps to curb contraband cellphones in recent years.

“We thank Commissioner Pai and his team for continuing to work with us on a critical public safety issue as we lead the fight against contraband cellphone use in prisons,” Haley spokeswoman Chaney Adams said.

Stirling said he hopes the FCC clears the path to allow cellular signals at state prisons either be jammed completely or only allow certain state-issued devices to be used.

For about five years, South Carolina has sought federal permission to jam cellular signals at state prisons, but the request has stalled before the FCC.

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.

In the meantime, since being hired in 2013, Stirling said he has instituted several policies to try and clamp down on all contraband making it into the prisons.

Surveillance towers have been installed at facilities, rovers keep an eye out to make sure no one’s hanging around the fence to throw something onto the property, and all staff and visitors now have to be searched when coming on site.

“The ideal route would be to make a cellphone no more valuable than a paperweight to an inmate,” Stirling said.

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