After a riot at Lee Correctional Institution Sunday left seven inmates dead and 17 injured, South Carolina’s prisons director repeated his call to jam cell phone signals at prisons.
Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said in a news conference Monday that a preliminary investigation found contraband cell phones were partially the cause of Sunday night’s violence.
“This was all about territory,” he told reporters. “This was all about contraband. This was about cell phones and you’ve heard us talk over and over again.”
South Carolina has pushed the Federal Communications Commission for permission to jam signals at its prisons since 2010, when investigators learned inmates used contraband phones to plan a brutal attack on a Lee Correctional captain at his home. Capt. Robert Johnson nearly died from his injuries.
For several years, Stirling has been meeting with members of Congress and the FCC on the issue. However, the agency has said it is limited by a 1934 law which only allows the federal government to jam radio signals. The telecommunications industry generally opposes a change, insisting the jamming could also impact phones on nearby property.
“We have a meeting at the end of next month that we hope will be fruitful with the industry,” Stirling said. “We can talk about solutions but until that’s done the folks who are incarcerated are going to continue their criminal ways from behind bars which is not only dangerous inside our institutions, but it’s also dangerous outside our institutions.”
“We’ve seen it over and over again,” he said. “We’ve had people arrested here. There’s been people arrested, inmates from Georgia, California — Charles Manson had a cell phone. It’s a problem. It’s not a South Carolina problem. It is a national problem and until the industry starts taking it seriously, this is going to continue to happen.”
Stirling suspects the contraband cell phones also allowed information about the riot to spread throughout the prison. “It happened in one dorm. Nobody left that dorm,” Stirling said. “And soon thereafter other dorms found out about it. So we believe that was the tool that was used but we don’t know. That’s what the investigation will tell us.”
Governor Henry McMaster has supported Stirling’s efforts to block cell phone signals at South Carolina’s prisons.
“It will go a long way,” McMaster said. “Jamming those cell phone signals will do a lot and Director Stirling should be commended. He has led this battle for the whole country.”
Due to staffing issues in South Carolina prisons in recent years, the SCDC has had problems keeping contraband cell phones out of the prisons. They are commonly thrown over the fence or even dropped by drones. Stirling insists the staffing shortage did not have much effect on the incident which occurred Sunday evening. He said there were 12 corrections officers in the three dorms where the riots occurred. Outnumbered correctional officers did not attempt to restore order until State Law Enforcement reinforcements assembled four hours later.
“The night shift comes in a little early, we pay them overtime and the day shift stays an hour or two late and we pay them overtime just so we have enough people there,” Stirling said. SCDC uses the increased staffing at the shift change to conduct head counts and lock-ins. “Normally we’d have about 20 people there.”
There were 44 corrections officers on duty in the facility.
“44 at Lee is good,” Stirling said. “We always want more but . . . we normally would have only had 16 to 20.”
Stirling said Lee Correctional has about a 28 percent vacancy rate for corrections staffing currently. He said recent efforts to recruit officers are working.
“We’ve expanded our pay for officers tremendously. We were losing 150 officers every year from 2011 until about two years ago and then we broke even last year and we were up about 100,” he said. “Our pay for Level 3 officers has gone up about 24 percent. When I first took over here it was about $27,000 and we couldn’t keep people. Now we’re turning that tide and the Governor put into his budget just under $5 million and our officers, hopefully if they go with the Senate version, we’ll get another $1,000 to make us competitive.”