Feds: SC prison cellphone jam test has 'promising results'

Some hope the tech will help combat the threat posed by inmates with smuggled cellphones

By Meg Kinnard
Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Federal officials said Wednesday that they were encouraged by another test of a jamming technology that some hope will help combat the threat posed by inmates with smuggled cellphones, which officials have long said represent the top security threat within their institutions.

The test was conducted over the course of five days in a housing unit at Broad River Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in Columbia. At the time, Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams told The Associated Press that the test was the first time federal officials had collaborated with officials at a state prison for such a test.

"Department officials are encouraged by the promising results and the potential for the technology to disable contraband cellphones in prisons," officials with the U.S. Justice Department said in a news release Wednesday, after the release of a report from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

According to officials, the jamming technology was installed and operated in half of an inmate housing unit. Officials from the federal Bureau of Prisons noted that, although cell signals inside the housing unit were blocked, other calls could be made 1 foot (0.3 meters) outside the housing unit perimeter.

Jamming technology also was tested last year at a federal prison in Maryland prison, where officials said they were able to shut down phone signals inside a prison cell, while devices about 20 feet (6 meters) away worked normally.

According to a decades-old law, state and local agencies don't have the authority to jam the public airwaves. In 2008, South Carolina officials received a waiver from the Federal Communications Commission to conduct a jamming test at a different maximum-security prison in a demonstration for media and other officials, but not in a prison dorm.

South Carolina Corrections Director Bryan Stirling has spoken out for years on the dangers posed by the devices smuggled into institutions by the thousands, allowing inmates unfettered ways to communicate with one another and even orchestrate crimes from behind bars. In 2017, Stirling testified at a FCC hearing in Washington alongside Robert Johnson, a former South Carolina corrections officer nearly killed in 2010 in a hit orchestrated by an inmate using an illegal phone.

In 2018, seven inmates at a maximum-security South Carolina prison were killed in what officials have said was a gang fight over territory and contraband including cellphones.

Stirling and other state prison directors use other measures — like perimeter netting, monitoring by drone, and scanners — to detect cellphones but advocate a jamming technology that would shut down all signals as the best possible defense.

The FCC has shown willingness to work on the issue, holding a field hearing in South Carolina and hosting meetings with members of Congress, prisons officials and stakeholders from the wireless industry.

On Wednesday, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster praised Stirling for his diligence in pursuing jamming as a safety solution.

"Director Bryan Stirling has led a nationwide effort in demonstrating the dangers of contraband cellphones in prisons, and it has become clear that it is far past time to allow states to jam cellphone signals in prisons," McMaster said.

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