An inmate's brazen escape was aided by a cell phone. Why can't cell signals be blocked?

Published: Jul. 7, 2017 at 3:10 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 7, 2017 at 4:23 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - South Carolina Department of Corrections officials are blaming contraband cell phones and drones for helping in the escape of an inmate at Lieber Correctional Institution.

Jimmy Causey, 46, fooled corrections officers with a dummy and cut his way out of the prison with wire cutters before his capture outside of Austin, Texas at a Motel 6.

"We believe a cell phone was used to facilitate and give this inmate the resources to escape," Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said during a news conference.

But now, Corrections Department officials are once again putting the spotlight on cell phones making their way into state prisons. It's a problem the Corrections Department has been fighting the federal government and the FCC about for several years.

Stirling and previous Corrections Department administrators in the past several years have asked the FCC to allow them to install cell phone jammers in state prisons, but they are currently not allowed to do so under federal law.

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

The FCC says this technology interferes with mobile 911 calls and public safety communication.

However, former Corrections Department Director Jon Ozmint says that's inaccurate.

"Surgical jamming is cheap. We know it works. The federal government does it every day somewhere in the world and in states. We know it works. The carriers say it doesn't, it over bleeds and all that. But the FBI is using it, the CIA is using it. The federal government is going to protect itself but won't allow the states to protect ourselves," Ozmint said. "I think it's an incredible double standard. We said that, you know, 10 years ago."

That war has spilled out into the public. A former Corrections Department officer who worked at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville sued 20 cell phone companies and cell tower owners accusing them of preventing blocking technology from being installed.

The lawsuit alleged an inmate at Lee used a cell phone to coordinate a hit on him, resulting in him being shot six times at his home in 2010.

Former director Ozmint goes further, and says cell phone companies are successfully using lobbying efforts to prevent states from deploying jammers because of fears they might eat into profits.

"Make no mistake," Ozmint said. "This is not anything more than carriers looking at their bottom lines and saying wait a minute, why would I want to stop selling pre-paid minutes that go on anonymous pre-paid phones that are being smuggled into the prison systems by the thousands every day?

"Most escapes don't happen without coordination these days without coordination with people on the outside. All the people that are being scammed from prison, we know that people are being -- hits are being put out by inmates in prison, criminal enterprises are being run by inmates in prisons. All the carriers see is minutes sold."

SLED Chief Mark Keel also fired back at the FCC.

"It is senseless to me that the federal government continues to prohibit state agencies from blocking cell phones," Keel said. "As long as cell phones are continued to be utilized by inmates in prisons, we're going to continue to have well-planned escapes like this."

A few days ago, Ozmint and Stirling met with members of the Department of Justice on this issue. Ozmint says he feels the Trump DOJ and FCC appear to be more receptive to the idea of loosening rules on jammers. But the former director says the wireless carrier industry and their lobbyists are extremely powerful and have some of the deepest pockets in DC.

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