COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina’s top prisons official has asked the nation’s top prosecutor for help combatting the dangers of cellphones behind bars, requesting Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ help in pursuing permission to jam cell signals in prison.
Corrections director Bryan Stirling wrote to Sessions earlier this month, laying out the overall danger he sees posed by unmonitored, unregulated cellphones in the hands of inmates.
“The most effective and cost-efficient way to stop the threat to both prisons and public safety is by jamming the signals of cellphones used in prisons,” Stirling wrote in a letter provided to The Associated Press. “I respectfully again request your support for this important issue, and your help achieving our goal of ending contraband cell phones by allowing the jamming of cell phones.”
Stirling has been outspoken on the dangers of cellphones, which are illegal for inmates to have in prison. Stirling and others officials have warned that the devices give inmates the unfettered ability to communicate among themselves and the outside world, plotting violent uprisings and carrying on criminal enterprises.
Last year, according to Stirling, more than 7,200 cellphones were seized from South Carolina’s prisons, smuggled by visitors, thrown over fences and even delivered by drone.
Cellphones and the security threats they can create are well documented. Last week, six correctional officers were rescued after an attempted confiscation of an inmate’s cellphone prompted a fight at a medium-security prison in Edgefield County, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northeast of Augusta, Georgia. Two officers were treated for non-life-threatening injuries.
A few days earlier, nearly three dozen people were charged with being part of a methamphetamine ring run by South Carolina inmates using smuggled cellphones. Earlier this year, Stirling traveled to Washington to lobby members of Congress on the issue, accompanied by a former corrections officer nearly killed in a hit authorities said had been organized by an illegal cellphone behind bars.
Jamming cell signals behind bars represents the best fix to Stirling and other state officials, who for years have asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to do so, rendering useless any cellphones possessed by inmates. That move has been opposed by the cellphone industry, out of concern it could lead to wider gaps in their networks.
A decades-old law says federal officials can grant permission to jam the public airwaves only to federal agencies, not state or local ones.
“Prison officials’ hands are ‘handcuffed’ because of this federal law,” Stirling wrote, also inviting Sessions to a meeting later this month where FCC officials and corrections directors like himself will discuss the cellphone issue in Washington.