Will jamming cell phone signals end the violence at SC prisons?

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - As South Carolina Department of Corrections officials are dealing with yet another spat of prison deaths with seven inmates killed at Lee Correctional Institution on Sunday night, the call to jam cell phone signals in prison is buzzing once again.

DOC officials have been lobbying the FCC for years to allow them to reverse a policy preventing states from using technology to jam cell signals. Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, former DOC Director Jon Ozmint, Gov. Henry McMaster, former Gov. Mark Sanford, Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Sen. Tim Scott have been part of those lobbying efforts.

"Cell phone jamming technology is illegal and causes more problems than it solves," a document posted to the FCC's website says.

After the Lee Correctional incident, Stirling specifically pointed at cell phones as being the one of the major causes behind the deadly riot.

"These folks are fighting over real money and real territory while they are incarcerated," Stirling said."And you've heard us talking about it over and over again. These folks are fighting over real money and real territory while they are incarcerated."

But Stirling said South Carolina is not the only state dealing with cell signal jamming issues.

"It's not a South Carolina problem, it is a national problem," Stirling said. "Until the industry starts taking this seriously, this is going to continue to happen."

McMaster has applauded Stirling's nationwide efforts to address the issue.

"I know prisons all around this country that would be safer if this jamming were allowed," McMaster said.

But issues with cell phones in prisons go back further than just Sunday night's incident.

Last July, Lieber Correctional Institution inmate Jimmy Causey, 46, escaped the prison thanks to a cell phone, DOC investigators said. In a news conference following his capture, Stirling blamed cell phones again.

"We believe a cell phone was used to facilitate and give this inmate the resources to escape," Stirling said.

Cell phone issues go back even further. Former corrections officer Capt. Robert Johnson was in his home and shot six times after investigators believe a prisoner inside Lee Correctional Institution ordered a hit on him.

"[Inmates] are doing things now that they never did before. This cell phone technology opens up a new dimension in criminal activity," Johnson said.

Statewide, meanwhile, lawmakers are working to push bills that make it a felony to have a cell phone inside state prisons. State senators are adamant about the stricter penalty being effective at preventing smuggled cell phones from entering prisons.

"It's going to be a felony. It's going to be one charge. It's really a stricter penalty. It's going to send a strong message you don't want to do this," Sen. Katrina Shealy (R-Lexington) said.

State Democrats have also pitched their own plans, including increased funding for corrections officers and overall reform efforts.

"It is not just in our society for people that receive a sentence to face this type of action as a result -- to die in prison while serving a 10-year sentence or a 15-year sentence," Rep. Will Wheeler said. "It's just not the way the system is supposed to work."

State DOC officials are still trying other avenues to fix the cell phone issue. DOC is working with a Maryland-based company on a $1.5 million contract to install a system that "allows authorized calls to go through but blocks others in a precisely defined target area." That system will be installed by the end of the month.

"The way that this technology is being implemented here at SCDC is the best legal alternative to contraband cellphone jamming that we have available," a statement from DOC said. "While we believe it is the best legal form of contraband cell phone deterrence it is very different than blocking, it is less effective, more expensive, and utilizes more internal institutional resources."

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