More cell bars behind prison bars? New cell tower set near Broad River Road causes worry

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - There's a new Verizon cell tower set to stand near the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), the Broad River Road Correctional Institution, and the Department of Corrections headquarters in Columbia.

The ground has already been broken on the project to install the new tower for consumer service. With that comes the fear for some that inmates will have greater access to cell signal on their contraband cell phone.

The site is just feet from the two facilities; the spot is marked with a round cement foundation and a pile of dirt near a water tower on property owned by the South Carolina Forestry Commission, near the Criminal Justice Academy off of Broad River Road.

Just weeks after the Department of Corrections (SCDC) blamed cell phones for the deadly riots at Lee Correctional, officials are on edge about the possibility of inmates gaining even more access to making phone calls and being connected to the outside world.

"Well, it endangers everybody," former SCDC Director Jon Ozmint told WIS on Monday. "As you can see, it makes prisons less safe but it also makes the public less safe."

Current Director Bryan Stirling was in Washington, D.C., on Monday to meet with the Federal Communications Commission on the possibility of jamming cell signals from transmitting through prison walls. By the close of business on Monday night, Stirling had signed a letter with DJJ Director Freddie Pough asking the Forestry Commission to rethink allowing the tower.

Ozmint expressed frustration with Verizon for the ongoing battle on blocking cell signals and now installing a new tower so near a prison.

"I can't get a signal in my house, you understand,"  explained Ozmint. "I live in a good neighborhood, pretty densely populated neighborhood, and I can get a single bar most of the times in my home."

Verizon confirmed the tower's construction late Monday. Officials told WIS it is being installed to service the greater area and that the facilities are so near only as coincidence.

"Verizon consistently builds new solutions to address customer needs, to ensure they have the coverage and capacity to stay connected. The location of new solutions is driven by a number of factors. The proximity of the Geology Road site, which we plan to have on air this summer, to the juvenile center is incidental to the need to provide reliable service in that area," Verizon spokesperson Kate Jay wrote in a statement.

Others, like one prison reform advocate and family member of an inmate, added they do not believe better cell signal would make prisons more dangerous.

"We're worried about getting rid of cellphones? There's still going to be weapons. If there's still cellphone signal, the knives didn't go away," Susan DeMarco with Curve the Pipeline said.

DeMarco feels a focus on prison programs for rehabilitation should come before worrying over cell reception from the cell block, saying "I don't think it's going to make it more dangerous."

On Monday night, the State Forester was working on a response to the letter he received from Stirling and Pough. However, a spokesperson told WIS that the Commission is not, in fact, the lessor; that, we are told, is actually ETV.

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