S.C., Ga. join effort to jam cellphone signals inside prisons

McCormick Correctional Institution
McCormick Correctional Institution(Gray)
Published: Jan. 25, 2023 at 12:37 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. - Top state prosecutors from across the country, including Georgia and South Carolina, are again urging Congress to pass legislation allowing state prisons to jam the signals of cellphones smuggled to inmates.

Prosecutors say the devices allow prisoners to plot violence and carry out crimes.

“A prison cell is no place for access to a cell phone,” said South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson. “Inmates across the country, and here in South Carolina, are using contraband cell phones to facilitate drug trafficking, commit extortion, and even organize murders. We’re doing our part on the ground, but Congress needs to give states the power to jam these cell phones. Enough is enough.”

Georgia Attorney General Chrs Carr said: “This is a nationwide issue that poses a significant risk to our correctional officers and the public at large, and we must do all we can to ensure that violent offenders have no method for causing additional harm from inside a prison cell.”

In the past five years, Wilson’s office has handled four major drug trafficking cases where inmates using contraband cell phones facilitated and organized drug rings while behind prison walls–the most recent being Las Señoritas in the Upstate.

Additionally, in 2018, a deadly prison riot in Lee Correctional Institute was orchestrated and planned using contraband cell phones, leaving seven dead and 20 more injured.

The phones are smuggled inside footballs, whisked in by corrupt employees and sometimes even dropped by drone – something that’s happened multiple times at state prisons on both sides of the Savannah River within the CSRA.

For example, five phones were recently seized by McCormick County deputies from smugglers who were using a drone at the McCormick Correctional Institution.

The Georgia Department of Corrections conducted 126 full facility shakedowns resulting in the removal of over 23,000 contraband phones. This number includes 8,074 contraband phones confiscated last year.

To be able to render the phones worthless, prosecutors are calling for a change in a federal communications law that currently prevents state prisons from using jamming technology to nullify illicit cell signals.

“Simply, we need Congress to pass legislation giving states the authority to implement a cell phone jamming system to protect inmates, guards, and the public at large,” the 22 prosecutors — all Republicans led by Wilson — wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Wilson’s office said there are plans to reach out to Democratic state prosecutors, arguing the issue isn’t a partisan one.

If inmates were blocked from using contraband cellphones, “we could prevent serious levels of drug trafficking, deadly riots, and other crimes from happening,” the prosecutors wrote.

The push to clamp down on illicit cellphones in state prisons has been ongoing for years, with South Carolina Corrections Director Bryan Stirling at the forefront of an effort by corrections directors across the country to call for the ability to use more technology to crack down on the contraband phones.

An incremental victory came in 2021, when the Federal Communications Commission adopted a ruling that would allow state prison systems to apply for permits to identify and turn off illegal cell signals, one by one, in collaboration with cellphone providers. South Carolina was the first state to apply to use this technology, but Stirling told AP on Tuesday that no action has been taken on the state’s application.

Federal prisons are allowed to jam cell signals behind bars, although none currently do, Stirling said.