Prison officials told lawmakers Monday that instituting jammers at correctional facilities statewide would help cut down on contraband cell phones behind bars.
Typically smuggled, the illegal mobile phones are used to coordinate illicit activities such as tampering with witnesses, threatening staff and re-victimizing crime victims with intimidation or stalking, prison officials said Monday during an interim study at the Capitol.
Jamming seems the simplest solution to the problem, said Mike Carpenter, the Department of Corrections security chief. He first noticed cell phones in the prison yard in Lexington in 2008.
There were just three then.
This year, prison officials already reported seizing more than 5,200 cell phones through the end of September.
“(Jamming has) got to be the simplest thing on the planet,” Carpenter said. “Turns out you can’t. Turns out not only can you not do it, but we couldn’t even initiative a conversation about how to get it done.”
The federal Communications Act of 1934 prohibits state agencies from operating jamming equipment, said Bryan Stirling, director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections.
“As I like to joke, it was the most forward-thinking Congress ever because cell phones didn’t exist in 1934,” Stirling said.
He said the agency is spending $550,000 a year to block certain radio frequencies. Jammers, which cost less, block all frequencies within a certain area, he said. He said his agency also spent millions on 60-foot nets designed to stop people from throwing cell phones into prison yards.
The nets helped deter the contraband as the cost to purchase phones behind bars jumped from $1,000 to $1,500 a piece, he said. But South Carolina lawmakers could have spent that money on other priorities like schools or correctional officer raises, he said.
Stirling said his staff has seized almost 7,500 cell phones and related devices like cords and chargers.
“We’re spending a lot of money when there’s one cost-effective solution, which is blocking these cell phones,” he said.
He said European and Australian officials also allow the technology.
“It just makes no sense to me that you can’t shut the phone down and basically build a wall,” Stirling said.
In September, Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt issued an executive order designed to crack down on what his office called “the crisis of contraband cellphones in state prisons.”
He called upon state leaders to research and implement technological solutions to eliminate the contraband phones.
“Contraband cellphones in our state prisons have become a serious public safety concern in Oklahoma,” Stitt said in a statement. “This is a technology issue that must be answered with a technology solution in order to efficiently and effectively improve safety for our inmates, Department of Correction employees and citizens of Oklahoma.
Also in a statement last month, U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, said he’s worked for years to change federal laws to allow state prisons more jamming options.
His statement came on the heels of what he called a “recent outbreak of prison riots” in Oklahoma that killed one inmate and injured dozens more.
“I commend Gov. Stitt for taking quick action to combat the rampant uptick of the use of contraband cell phones in Oklahoma state prisons,” he said. “The recent riots in our state prisons show stronger solutions are needed to solve this issue.”
He called on cell phone companies and their national association to work with prison officials to test jamming options and other potential solutions to improve safety.
The wireless industry has concerns that current jamming technology could inadvertently block legal communications outside prisons, said Gerard Keegan, vice president of state legislative affairs with CTIA, an association that represents the wireless communication industry.
“We do have concerns that jammers could block lawful communications including public safety communications, and that the jammers do bleed into adjourning bands including the public safety communications bands,” he said.
“We support further testing of jammers to ensure that they do not bleed out into the public cellular networks, and we stand ready to work with officials here in Oklahoma and throughout the country to stop this issue from occurring again.”