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SC prisons get green light for anti-cellphone tech

The technology can catch prisoners in the act when they try to use illegal prison cellphones

By Meg Kinnard
Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina’s prisons agency got approval Tuesday to start implementing technology that can catch prisoners in the act when they try to use illegal prison cellphones.

It’s not the cell signal jamming that the Department of Corrections has been seeking to use. But Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told The Associated Press on Tuesday that being able to track down smuggled cellphones when they’re turned on behind bars is a step in the right direction.

Stirling said the more than $20,000 approved by the State Fiscal Accountability Authority will fund engineering costs for a sophisticated system to be used at a handful of prisons that house some of the state’s most dangerous inmates. And he says his agency already has the remaining $1.3 million needed to fully fund it.

South Carolina has tried for years to crack down on the phones, thousands of which are confiscated in the state’s prisons every year, smuggled inside hollowed out footballs, whisked in by corrupt employees and sometimes even dropped by drone.

Stirling said smuggled phones are “one of the most dangerous problems” he faces, giving inmates an unmonitored, unfettered means of continuing their crimes and even perpetrating violence. A South Carolina Corrections officer nearly died in a 2010 shooting outside his home that authorities said was planned by an inmate using a smuggled phone.

Guards have tried old-fashioned searches, metal detectors, even tech-sniffing dogs to find them. The agency says the Cell Phone Interdiction System approved Tuesday will be able to pinpoint their use to a single inmate’s cell.

Still, it’s a stopgap measure — what the director really wants is permission to jam cell signals in the state’s prisons altogether, using transmitters that render smuggled phones into paperweights. He’s got the support of Gov. Nikki Haley. But the cellphone industry stands in the way, citing a federal law passed in 1934.

The law says the Federal Communications Commission can grant permission to jam public airwaves only to federal agencies, not state or local ones. The industry strongly opposes localized jamming technology, out of concern that it could set a precedent leading to much wider gaps in their networks.

Five FCC commissioners voted in 2013 to kick-start a conversation about what the agency could do to combat the problem, but that effort never advanced. At an FCC field hearing in South Carolina earlier this year, held at Haley’s invitation, Commissioner Ajit Pai called the status quo “not acceptable” and said he would renew a discussion about next steps.

The FCC had no immediate comment on the cellphone locating technology or South Carolina’s pursuit of jamming technology.

“While the FCC doesn’t allow us to use this technology, we continue to look for ways to make our institutions and the public safe,” Stirling said. Jamming, he said, remains “the ultimate solution.”

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press