Bill aims to crack down on illegal phones in SC prisons

The head of South Carolina’s prisons system is calling on the government to give him the tools to crack down on illegal cellphones behind bars.
Published: Apr. 21, 2023 at 8:38 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 22, 2023 at 1:44 PM EDT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - The head of South Carolina’s prisons system is calling on the government to give him the tools to crack down on illegal cellphones behind bars.

It’s a problem Corrections Director Bryan Stirling says has led to inmates facilitating drug deals and even ordering hits right from their cells.

Victims of these crimes and their families have traveled to the South Carolina State House in recent weeks with a message: This must end.

“They don’t need cellphones because all it’s going to lead to is crime, hurt, and death,” Kevin Johns told a House of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee on Thursday.

Johns and Kathy Bowling made that entreaty to lawmakers as they held photos of their son, Jared Johns.

The 24-year-old Army veteran died by suicide in 2018, not long after investigators say he was sexually extorted.

“It took 18 hours for him to take his life,” Bowling said.

Investigators say inmates at a South Carolina prison were the ones talking with Johns, using a cellphone they shouldn’t have ever had.

They say they posed as an underage teenage girl and her parents and threatened to report him to law enforcement for committing a crime he didn’t actually commit unless he paid them.

“They’re in there to stop them from doing crimes, but they’re doing more crimes,” Johns said.

His parents urged South Carolina lawmakers to pass a bill, H.4002, to make it a felony for inmates to have these devices.

Stirling has already designated cellphones as contraband for inmates — this would make that permanent.

But Stirling said ultimately, the proven solution the state needs is the ability to jam cellphone signals inside its prisons.

The federal government can already do this for federal prisons, but it won’t give that same authority to states in the face of opposition from the cellphone industry.

“The point of this bill is just to make sure that if the industry baulks at the law that’s on the books, because they’ve baulked at everything else — they really don’t want to stop cellphones in inmates’ hands — then we will be able to go to them, to the FCC, and say, ‘We have a law on the books, and they cannot challenge that law because it’s a lot more ironclad than a law that designates the director can say what contraband is,’” he said.

Stirling has been pleading with the federal government to jam cellphones in the state’s prisons for several years.

“Had that been in place, they never would’ve reached Jared,” Bowling said.

As this bill is written now, it would also permanently make cellphones illegal for people detained in county detention centers in South Carolina.

On Thursday, H.4002 cleared the first of several approvals it needs to eventually become law, advancing out of its House Judiciary subcommittee.

With South Carolina’s legislative session ending next month, efforts to put this into place permanently will likely continue next year, though senators attached a temporary law to enact the same measures to the version of the budget they passed this week.

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.