Feds test cell phone jamming technology at Broad River Correctional, director calls it a ‘success’

Updated: Apr. 15, 2019 at 6:55 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - One year after a deadly riot at Lee Correctional Institution claimed the lives of seven inmates and injured 17 others, state and federal officials are progressing toward their goal of jamming cell phone signals within state prisons.

The test took place over the course of five days last week inside a dorm at Broad River Correctional Institution in Columbia. Federal officials with the Department of Commerce, Department of Justice and U.S. District Attorney of South Carolina joined the Department of Corrections to test the technology.

“I walked in, I was on the phone with someone, my phone worked, I stepped into the unit and my phone stopped working,” SC Department of Correction Director Bryan Stirling said. “They were literally able to split the unit in half so if you were standing on one side of the unit your phone would work, if you were on the other side of the unit, your phone would not work.”

Stirling calls the test a success and is hopeful it will dispel any concerns about the jamming technology spilling over into neighboring communities or other emergency calls within the prison.

“It will show bleed over is just a red herring and the technology has advanced so much that we can block the cell phones without having bleed over,” he said.

A nearly 100-year-old federal law prohibits the jamming or blocking of radio transmissions, thus not allowing prison officials to block cell phone signals within prison walls. Stirling testified in 2017 at an FCC hearing about the need for contraband cell phones after a former South Carolina corrections officer, Captain Robert Johnson, was nearly killed after a hit was put out on him using a contraband cell phone.

One year ago, a seven-hour riot at Lee Correctional sparked not only an investigation into its cause, but a new set of precautionary measures were put in place. New perimeter netting, along with full body scanners, new software upgrades and a system called “managed access” was implemented at Lee.

“Managed Access” allows only approved phone calls to go through inside prisons, but Stirling said in some cases, wireless carriers have boosted their power, allowing contraband cell phones to successfully make calls.

According to the Department of Corrections, implementation of “managed access” at Lee Correctional costs $541,000 a year on average. However, it said the technology tested last week would cost half that.

Federal legislation has been introduced within Congress to give prisons authority to jam cell phone signals and Stirling said it’s a matter of public safety.

“These people, when they go into prison, physically leave society, but virtually, they’re amongst us,” he said.

The results of the test will be published in a report at a later date and will hopefully aid in the legislation’s success, Stirling said.

As of June 2018, 18,958 people were incarcerated in South Carolina state prisons.

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