A bill is working its way through the state House would increase the penalties for inmates who possess a cell phone or those who provide them inside correctional facilities.
A Senate Corrections subcommittee voted Tuesday to advance the bill, sponsored by State Rep. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, to the full committee for a vote.
“They can (use the phones to) get online,” Shealy explained why she crafted the bill. “They can call in hits from the outside just by having a cell phone. We need to stop that. They’re incarcerated for a reason . . . they don’t need to have contact with the outside. That’s just asking for trouble and it needs to be stopped. And so I think by having this legislation, it will deter that activity and the stronger the penalty, the more they’re going to stop.”
Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told the committee he believes by increasing the charge to a felony, the state is sending a message to inmates who use cell phones in prison and the people who provide them.
“Right now there’s confusion: is it magistrate’s court charge, 30 days, or is a one-year felony?” he said. “It would strengthen (the law) making it a felony to bring cell phones into prisons.”
“In the courts, we have had and a problem when we go and try to have someone convicted or charged with possession of a cell phone or smuggling a cell phone in, there’s confusion whether it should go to general sessions court or whether it goes to magistrate’s court,” Stirling said. “And today, what Senator Shealy did was to clean that up and send a clear message that we’re taking it serious and it’s going to be a felony.”
South Carolina has struggled to stem the flow of contraband phones into its prisons. The agency is asking the federal government for the ability to jam phone signals inside the facilities. The Federal Communications Commission is testing such technologies at federal prisons this month.
“If you take contraband cell phones into prison, it’s going to be a felony. It’s going to be one charge. It’s really a stricter penalty,” Shealy said. “It’s going to send a strong message: ‘You don’t want to do this. If you take it there you’re going to be penalized.'”
“With what this committee did today, they’re sending a clear message to folks that are trying to smuggle cell phones into our correctional institutions that it is a felony and we take it very serious and you’re going to go to jail if you do that — or prison, actually,” Stirling said. “30-day misdemeanor vs. a year to 10 years? That’s a large deterrent.”