SC attorney general, prisons chief renew call to jam cellphones at state prisons

Drug trafficking, human trafficking, and prison riots are all crimes that law enforcement connects to SC inmates getting their hands on cellphones behind bars.
Published: Jan. 30, 2023 at 10:02 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 30, 2023 at 11:26 PM EST

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Drug trafficking, human trafficking, and prison riots are all crimes that law enforcement connects to South Carolina inmates getting their hands on cellphones behind bars.

The head of the state’s prison system has been wanting to block signals to those phones for years, but to no avail.

“This is about cellphones, and you’ve heard us talking about these over and over again. These folks are fighting over real money and real territory after they’re incarcerated,” South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said in 2018, speaking after seven inmates were killed during a riot at Lee Correctional Institution near Bishopville.

Law enforcement blamed cellphones as one of the major causes of the deadly, seven-hour riot.

“It’s the No. 1 public safety threat, I think, in the country,” Stirling said last week. “A sheriff told me that recently.”

Earlier this month, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson announced 43 people had been indicted in a multi-state drug trafficking bust, which prosecutors said inmates coordinated using cellphones.

“In the last five years, we have busted up four major drug trafficking rings involving the use of contraband cellphones behind the prisons,” Wilson said. “Prison cells are no place for cellphones, and we need to stop it.”

Last week, Wilson sent a letter to Congressional leaders that was cosigned by more than 20 other state attorneys general, urging lawmakers to pass legislation that would allow states to jam cellphone signals at their prisons.

The federal government can do that in federal prisons, but federal law bars states from doing the same.

Critics worry giving states that power could also block signals for people who live and work nearby.

“One time, I think that was possible,” Stirling said. “But now with technology and equipment advances, that’s not possible anymore. I think that’s a red herring.”

Stirling said they have taken measures to try to keep illegal phones out of prisons in the first place, including adding scanners and x-rays at entrances and installing netting to stop throwovers, and they are working to implement drone-detection technology.

But he said the best solution is to render those phones inoperable.

“If we could just jam, just like the federal prisons are able to jam, these cellphones, a lot of this would go away almost overnight,” he said.

But Stirling said there might be a middle ground.

Last year, the FCC adopted a rule that would allow state prison systems to turn off illegal cellphone signals within five days of identifying them.

Stirling said South Carolina applied for this and has been certified but isn’t able to actually do it yet.

“All I want from the FCC right now is some type of answer as to how long this is going to take, and we can’t get that answer. I need to know that,” Stirling said.

The FCC has not responded to a request for comment by Monday evening.

Wilson said he believes the federal government is interfering with states’ police powers and rights to protect their citizens by not allowing them to jam phones.

The attorney general said he was not sure at this point if that is grounds for future legal action, adding he would rather work with the federal government on this matter than fight them.

“All options are on the table for me when it comes to protecting the people of this state,” Wilson said.