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Crime & Courts

South Carolina Lawmakers Mull New Prison Cell Phone Statute

Bill would strengthen prohibitions on contraband phones …

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Several prominent law enforcement and prosecutorial leaders in South Carolina have been pushing to ban cell phones in Palmetto State prisons for years … or more specifically, to jam the signals which render them operational.

Their logic? That contraband cell phones inside South Carolina prisons are enabling violent criminals in the furtherance of their extralegal endeavors … as evidenced by a bloody riot at Lee Correctional Institution in 2018 that killed seven people and injured another twenty. That riot was orchestrated by inmates using contraband phones. So was a prison “sextortion” scam that same year which targeted members of the U.S. Armed Forces (USAF) – depriving them of more than $560,000.

Jamming prison phones was a centerpiece of the brief prosecutorial tenure of former U.S. attorney (and current district court judge) Sherri Lydon. It has also been a longtime goal of S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC) director Bryan Stirling. More recently, S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson called on the federal government to authorize cell phone jamming – stating that violent criminals are “using contraband cell phones to facilitate drug trafficking, commit extortion and even organize murders.”

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Wilson called on the U.S. Congress to pass legislation giving states the authority to jam phones after his office announced a major drug bust involving a Mexican cartel that allegedly operated largely via contraband cell phones.

Why can’t states jam cell phone signals on their own? Because cell phone jamming is the exclusive purview of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – which is operating under a 1934 law which restricts any unauthorized interference in radio waves.

The agency is not keen on relinquishing this authority, either. According to an April 2020 FCC alert, “signal jamming devices can prevent you and others from making 9-1-1 and other emergency calls and pose serious risks to public safety communications, as well as interfere with other forms of day-to-day communications.”

Is that the real reason, though? Or an excuse?

(Click to View)

Contraband phones (SCDC)

As this news outlet has repeatedly pointed out, prepaid phones (and prepaid phone minutes) constitute a multi-billion dollar annual industry – one which encompasses virtually all extra-legal prison usage.  The wireless companies don’t want to part with this revenue, which is why federal officials beholden to them have consistently rebuffed calls to jam the signals.

While we wait for this special interest stranglehold to loosen, state leaders are belatedly pushing a measure that would give correctional officials more leverage in enforcing their own cell phone bans.

Currently, the possession of cell phones in prison falls under a general contraband prohibition. A proposed bill would strengthen that ban – statutorily criminalizing the possession of these devices while providing penalties for inmates found with cell phones on their persons.

The bill – H. 4002 – is sponsored by S.C. speaker Murrell Smith. According to its language, SCDC inmates would be banned from possessing any “telecommunications device” without express authorization. Anyone found to be in violation of the new statute would be “guilty of a felony” and subject to fines ranging from at least $1,000 to $10,000 – and additional prison time ranging from at least one year up to a full decade.

Correctional officials support the law, which they believe will enhance their ability to enforce the current ban.

Smith’s bill has been referred to the S.C. House judiciary committee – where it is awaiting a hearing in front of a subcommittee led by state representative Jeff Johnson of Conway, S.C. Will it pass this year? Probably not … but public safety advocates are reportedly preparing to make it a priority issue heading into the coming election year.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Will Folks on phone
Will Folks (Brett Flashnick)

Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.

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1 comment

Carla Golden Top fan April 11, 2023 at 9:50 am

Will you please explain how inmates are getting and keeping these phones?

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