Prison chiefs head to Washington to talk cellphones with FCC
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Corrections officials from around the country are heading to Washington on Wednesday to discuss what they call their biggest security threat: cellphones in the hands of inmates.
The Federal Communications Commission is hosting a meeting with law enforcement and prisons officials, as well as representatives from the wireless industry. South Carolina Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, who said he had been asked to speak at the meeting on behalf of his fellow directors, said he expected no major answers to come Wednesday but viewed the gathering as progress on the issue.
“I’m hoping that this will be the start of a conversation,” Stirling told The Associated Press on Tuesday as he traveled to Washington. “I don’t think a solution will come tomorrow, but I think sitting across the table from folks is a positive step.”
Prison officials say cellphones — smuggled into their institutions by the thousands, by visitors, errant employees, and even delivered by drone — are dangerous because inmates use them to carry out crimes. Stirling and his counterparts from states including Arizona, California, Georgia and Tennessee are planning to attend the meeting for a discussion on ways to potentially use technology like signal jamming to fight the phones.
“To me, if you just shut the signal down, that seems to be the best solution,” Stirling said.
Wireless industry groups are opposed to such technology, saying they worry signal-blocking technologies could thwart legal calls.
The FCC, which regulates the nation’s airwaves, has said it can’t permit jamming in state prisons, citing a decades-old law that prohibits interruption of the airwaves at state-level institutions.
But the agency has been softening on the issue, thanks to persistent pleas from officials including Stirling, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, as well as members of Congress including South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford and Tennessee Rep. David Kustoff.
Wednesday’s meeting makes good on FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s promise last year that he would open a dialogue on the issue and report his findings to Congress.
Pai has been working with Stirling on this issue for several years. In 2016, he traveled to South Carolina to tour a prison with the director and hold a field hearing, at which officials including then-Gov. Nikki Haley testified, urging the agency to permit jamming in state prisons.
Stirling said he expected representatives from wireless industry, as well as technology companies, to attend Wednesday’s meeting. In a letter filed with the FCC last month, trade group CTIA wrote that court orders should be required to shut down the devices, arguing that judicial review will provide a way to shut down the devices while not interfering with legitimate cellphone calls nearby.