South Carolina’s prisons director has some strong opinions about shutting down cell phone signals at prisons. One of his corrections officers was nearly killed when an inmate used a contraband cell phone to orchestrate the officer’s shooting.
In August, Captain Robert Johnson told the Federal Communications Commission about the 2010 shooting. The FCC has previously said a 1934 law only allows the federal government — and not states — to block electronic signals. But state Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said that law must be adjusted with the existence of cell phones.
“We keep on seeing people who are incarcerated get in trouble and continue to break the law because they have access to the outside world. And it’s unfettered access,” Stirling said. “We see it all the time. It’s a safety issue for the public. It’s a safety issue for our officers, for victims.”
After years of testimony and trips to Washington, Stirling said his campaign is getting somewhere. About 50 members of congress, including South Carolina’s contingent, wrote letters to the FCC in support of blocking cell phone signals at prisons and the FCC has responded.
“They’ve responded, saying they’re going to facilitate, they’ve written to (U.S. Rep.) Trey Gowdy, (U.S. Sens.) Tim Scott, Lindsey Graham and other congressmen in the state and said ‘Thank you very much for the letter, we’re going to try to facilitate a meeting between corrections directors, the FBI and the cell phone companies.'”
“The FCC is a regulatory body which enforces laws, it is not a lawmaking body,” Securus Technologies account executive Adam Mercer explained, while talking to the Senate Corrections and Penology Oversight Subcommittee Tuesday about his company’s different programs available for dealing with cell phone signals at prisons.
Although security experts like Mercer say prisons have two options for controlling cell phone signals at prisons, Stirling said blocking the signals is the best and most cost-effective option. The other option is called managed access and it is technology set up within a facility that allows some signals, but not others.
“If you just flip the switch and don’t allow cell phones to work, it’s a lot more costly for managed access than it is blocking,” Stirling said. “We’re doing all that . . . I still think managed access is something we’re going to have to try, however, I still say, and we’ve been a leading voice on this issue, is that blocking needs to be done.”
“Carriers are at the core of the whole thing,” Mercer told the subcommittee. “They don’t want their service affected.”
Preventing the contraband phones from getting into the facilities is another problem.
“They continue to find different ways to sneak it in,” Stirling told the Senate subcommittee Monday.
Netting is going to be installed around prison fences to prevent people from throwing contraband over the fence or dropping them from drones. Stirling plans to cut trees back from fence lines to expose more ground surrounding facilities. Cameras and lights are being installed and once staffing levels improve more corrections officers will be able to monitor the perimeter.
“Now we have to look outside,” he said. “Prison used to be inward-looking.”