Change at White House renews hope for jamming cellphone signals at S.C. prisons

February 4, 2017 GMT

COLUMBIA — Corrections officials hope recent leadership changes at President Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Commission will allow them to soon use signal-blocking technology at the state’s prisons.

S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said Friday he is reaching out to new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to reiterate the need to jam the airwaves at prisons.

Pai last year came to South Carolina to host a forum on issues surrounding contraband cellphones in prisons. Trump appointed Pai as commission chairman last month.

“I’m more hopeful with him in charge because he came down and heard the field hearing,” said Stirling, who added that Pai toured the Lee Correctional Institution. “I’m more hopeful that maybe we’ll get some movement.”

Stirling said be believes jamming cellphone signals at prisons is the best way to address the steady number of phones making their way to inmates, who use them to contact the outside world, including to do harm.

“Having a cellphone (in prison) is unfettered access to the outside world by inmates,” Stirling said. “One of the most dangerous times for an employee is when they try to take away a cellphone.”

Regulators have said that a 1934 law allows only federal agencies to jam public airwaves. Cellphone companies have argued that the jamming methods suggested by South Carolina, and other states, could interfere with emergency communications and other legal cellphone use.

Gov. Henry McMaster’s spokesman, Brian Symmes, said McMaster will assist Stirling in his effort to block cellphone signals. He hopes Pai will continue to advocate for the change.

Pai traveled to Columbia last April to host a forum on the topic with law enforcement officers, wireless company officials and politicians to gather information he said he would take back to Washington, D.C., with the hope of spurring the FCC into action.

“I believe it’s far too long a time for us to be sitting around waiting on a solution,” he said at the time. Pai did not respond last week to a request for comment.

Then-Gov. Nikki Haley, who took part in Pai’s forum, and several other governors wrote a letter in May to the FCC urging them to reconsider the 1934 regulation.

Phones are known to get into state facilities a number of ways, including being smuggled in, thrown over a fence and, in some recent instances, dropped by drones flying over the prison. Just last year SCDC confiscated more than 7,000 cellphones and accessories.

Until jamming is allowed, Stirling said the department is taking several steps to try to keep cellphones out of inmates’ hands. The S.C. Senate last week passed a bill that would restrict drones from flying near prisons unless the owner had permission from the facility. It will be considered by House members as soon as this week.

SCDC is working to acquire technology that will help them locate and confiscate cellphones in prisons. The department also is requesting proposals to implement a managed access system, where the technology allows only approved cellphones to work within a designated space.

Stirling last week asked the state for approval to put netting around 11 prisons to keep contraband that is thrown over the fence away from prisoners.

“This is all because of cellphones,” Stirling said. ”(Inmates) would still have them, but it would be harder coordinate if there weren’t already phones inside. We’re doing everything we can.”