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Sherri Lydon: Let State Prisons Jam Cell Phones

U.S. attorney for South Carolina makes her case …

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U.S. attorney Sherri Lydon penned a guest column in this week’s editions of The Wall Street Journal – addressing the issue of cell phones in state prisons.

“The only way to stop the public-safety threat from contraband phones is to disable cell signals and render the devices completely useless,” Lydon wrote. “Inmates shouldn’t be able to boost their drug-distribution rings by switching to providers with more reliable service inside the prison. They shouldn’t get a signal at all.”

We agree … although this issue isn’t about drugs as far as we are concerned, certainly not to the exclusion of other criminal activity.

To wit: Lydon’s piece referenced her office’s starring role in the breakup of a prison “sextortion” scam – one in which inmates of the S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC) and their accomplices targeted nearly 450 military personnel, scamming them out of more than $560,000.

After initiating correspondence with their “marks,” prisoners would allegedly send them an unsolicited nude picture of a young girl. Shortly thereafter, another prisoner (using a separate phone) would allegedly send the soldier a message pretending to be the angry father of the girl – insisting upon payment lest he go to the authorities with the “evidence.”

This remarkably efficient, effective scam – like so many similar jailhouse rackets – relied upon prison cell phone coverage.

“We don’t put criminals in prison so they can keep breaking the law from behind bars,” Lydon wrote. “But as long as they have time and access to cellphones, inmates will keep running drug rings, stealing and menacing innocent Americans. Only Congress can amend the law to allow our state and local partners to disable signals. It’s time to do it.”

Again, we concur. While we were not originally sold on this idea, we endorsed jamming cell phones as part of our expansive vision for prison reform back in November 2017.

“Contraband cell phones are not the cause of violence in South Carolina’s prisons … but their ubiquitousness is clearly facilitating the violence, and the only argument we’ve heard against jamming cell phone signals is that it might impede wireless service in surrounding areas,” we wrote at the time.

“Of course that isn’t the real argument,” we added. “The real reason the federal government won’t let states jam cell phone signals is quite simple: Cell phone companies don’t want to part with a significant stream of revenue.

As we noted in a story last fall, prepaid phones and prepaid phone minutes constitute a multi-billion dollar annual industry – one that encompasses virtually all extra-legal prison usage.

Wireless providers aren’t about to give that market up without a fight, and while jamming signals is obviously not a panacea for ending violence inside (or outside of) prisons – we would argue it is time to initiate that battle in the Palmetto State.

Past time, actually …

Which reminds us, there is one point upon which we would disagree with Lydon. We do not believe South Carolina should wait on the federal government to take the necessary action in this case. As we noted in our column on prison reform, we believe state leaders “should bite the bullet and jam the signals anyway – and let the federal government file suit if it wants to.”

Our suspicion is Lydon probably feels the same way, although as the top federal prosecutor for the Palmetto State she obviously cannot endorse such a decision – and would, in fact, likely have to oppose it publicly.

Still … it is time.

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