Purge prisons of illegal cell phones

On June 15, an attempt to take a cell phone away from a prisoner at Trenton Correctional Institute in Edgefield County set off a riot, causing six guards to barricade themselves in a dorm overnight until they could be rescued. Two guards were injured in the initial struggle to seize the phone.

Just a few days earlier, 34 people were indicted in a methamphetamine ring run by South Carolina prisoners in maximum-security lockups in Columbia and Bishopville. According to the indictment, the ringleaders used cell phones to coordinate sales, deliveries and payments on the outside.

Can there be any question about the need to find a better way to deal with cell phones in S.C. prisons?

And not just in South Carolina. Keeping wireless phones out of prisons has failed nationwide, and problems associated with them are only getting worse. So far, the Federal Communications Commission has done little to push the wireless industry toward a solution. But that could change under FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who just began a new five-year term.

Consider that South Carolina has about 30,000 prisoners, and more than 7,200 cell phones were confiscated last year alone. And prison officials estimate they’re seizing only about half of the phones that make their way behind bars.

Now, in a bid to gain traction, South Carolina’s top prison official, Bryan Stirling, has asked U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions for help.

Wireless phones can be disabled in a limited area with radio frequency “jamming” technology, but the FCC has been loathe to revisit the Communications Act of 1934 act that makes it illegal for all but the federal government to do so.

Section 333 of the Act, however, merely bans “willful or malicious interference to authorized radio communications.”

According to attorney Jon Ozmint, a former director of the S.C. Department of Corrections, all Mr. Sessions needs to is issue an advisory opinion that says cell phone calls made by prisoners are not “authorized” but, in fact, illegal. That could help clear the way for state prisons to legally jam wireless signals.

Telecom companies consistently have opposed signal jamming, arguing that it could block legitimate emergency calls or interfere with other public safety communications. But Mr. Ozmint insists that the FCC hasn’t had “the courage to stand up to the wireless industry.”

In FCC Chairman Pai, Mr. Ozmint sees a glimmer of hope. But he cautions that any solution will require the cooperation of the wireless industry.

“What we want to do is turn that phone into a brick” Mr. Ozmint says. “What we’re looking for now is for the FCC to enact some meaningful requirements, to try to get [the wireless industry] to cooperate.”

Mr. Pai has shown a willingness to help solve the problem. After hearing testimony from Mr. Stirling and former S.C. prison guard Robert Johnson, who was nearly killed in a 2010 plot orchestrated via prisoners with cellphones, the FCC in March approved a process for using “managed-access” systems and technology to pinpoint the whereabouts of contraband phones.

Managed-access technology, in which all but pre-approved phones are blocked, has had some success in prisons. But Mr. Ozmint says those systems are expensive, hardware-intensive and “defeatable” by wireless carriers.

Trying to confiscate cell phones has proven futile and dangerous. In fact, Johnson was targeted precisely because it was his job to track down and seize phones at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville.

As the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Mr. Sessions has a duty to work with Mr. Stirling, as does Mr. Pai whose job it is to regulate the public airwaves. And until technology provides a better alternative for disabling cell phones, Mr. Sessions and Mr. Pai should find a way to allow states to jam signals — or let federal agencies do it directly.