The South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) wants to block cellphone signals behind bars, but needs the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) permission.
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai visited South Carolina on Wednesday to host a hearing on the issue. He then hosted a public hearing on the issue after touring the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville earlier in the day.
Gov. Nikki Haley testified at the hearing that corrections officers and victims are nervous for their safety because gang members are able to use smuggled phones. “What we are seeing from the inmates is all they have is time,” the governor said. “And what we are giving inmates is the ultimate weapon to do whatever they want to with it.”
The issue has been a sore point in South Carolina, which has been seeking FCC permission to jam its prison cell signals since 2010. However, the agency cites a 1934 law which stated it can only give such powers to federal agencies, not state ones. Three years ago, the agency’s commissioners pledged to move forward on the issue after 30 states sought approval. But that effort never materialized.
South Carolina’s Department of Corrections has fought for the ability to block cell signals after one of its officers Captain Robert Johnson was shot six times in a 2010 hit that the State Law Enforcement Division says was ordered by a Lee Correctional inmate using a contraband phone.
Johnson also testified after the governor on Wednesday. He said it took 12 surgeries and 63 units of blood before he recovered and doctors at one point, thought he would die from his injuries. “If the South Carolina Department of Corrections had been able to block cellphone signals, my ordeal would not have happened,” Johnson told Pai on Wednesday.
Haley said inmates with contraband cellphones have access to the outside world. “Because with a cellphone they can get drugs. With a cellphone they can target an officer’s family. With a cellphone they can get their gangs together,” Haley said.
The wireless industry opposes the jamming, worried it could impact legitimate customers who live nearby. Cellular Telephone Industries Association lobbyist Gerard Keegan noted other cases where such blocking impacted neighbors in foreign jails that allowed the jamming. Since jammers impact any sort of radio transmission, it would also affect wi-fi signals or emergency communications, they said.