Legislators have given the approval for South Carolina corrections officials to begin work on a new system that could detect illegal cell phones being used inside their prisons.
The Joint Bond Review Committee on Tuesday approved the new Cell Phone Interdiction System at four maximum-security facilities. The state Department of Corrections (SCDC) has long struggled against the relative ease inmates have in smuggling phones inside state facilities. Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said some inmates are able to use contraband phones to coordinate crimes or intimidate victims.
Stirling said his agency will focus on getting the cameras into its maximum-security prisons first before expanding into other facilities. “It causes us headaches every single day,” he told lawmakers. “So we figured we would start with the most challenging offenders… the ones we think are the most dangerous, and then go from there.”
He told lawmakers CPIS would not be able to block phone signals, but it would be able to detect when a phone is turned on. Corrections officers would then try to track down the source. The first prisons to use the CPIS will be the maximum-security facilities at Broad River and Kirkland in Columbia, Lee Correctional Institution near Bishopville and McCormick Correctional in McCormick in addition to the death row facility at Lieber Correctional near Ridgeville.
The estimated $1.3 million project still needs to be approved by the State Fiscal Accountability Authority, which will likely come next week.
SCDC officials have struggled to control inmate phone use for years. They have been seeking FCC permission to jam prison cell signals since 2010. However, the federal agency cites a 1934 law which stated it can only give such powers to federal agencies, not state ones.
The issue got national attention after SCDC Captain Robert Johnson was shot six times at his home in a 2010 hit that the State Law Enforcement Division says was ordered by a Lee Correctional inmate using a contraband phone. He survived the attack, but was forced to retire due to his injuries.
Stirling said SCDC is also looking at installing “managed access” system would be able to block unapproved phone signals. However, he added managed access is expensive and cannot block all phone use.