Prosecutors to Congress: Let state prisons jam cellphones

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COLUMBIA, SC (AP) — Top prosecutors across the nation are once again urging Congress to pass legislation allowing state prisons to block cell phone signals smuggled to prisoners, devices the lawyers say enable prisoners to plot violence and commit crimes.

“We simply need Congress to pass legislation authorizing states to implement a cell phone jamming system to protect inmates, guards and the general public,” the 22 plaintiffs — all Republicans — wrote. led by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson — in a letter sent Wednesday to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

Wilson’s office said plans are underway to contact Democratic Republic prosecutors, arguing the issue is not partisan.

The letter, which was provided to The Associated Press, cites a handful of criminal incidents that the lawyers say were orchestrated by inmates using cell phone contraband, including a Tennessee drug conspiracy and a double homicide ordered by an Indiana inmate.

They also mentioned a gang-related siege in 2018 that raged for more than seven hours at a South Carolina jail, killing seven inmates. One prisoner described bodies “literally piled on top of each other, like a macabre pile of wood.” Corrections officers blamed the orchestrated violence – the worst riot in US prisons in 25 years – partly on illegal mobile phones.

“If inmates were blocked from using smuggled cell phones, we could prevent serious drug trafficking, deadly riots and other crimes,” the prosecutors wrote.

To render the phones — smuggled in hollowed-out footballs, dragged along by corrupt employees, and sometimes even dropped by drones — worthless, prosecutors are calling for an amendment to a nearly 100-year-old federal communications law that currently prohibits state prisons from using jamming technology to nullify unauthorized cell signals. doing.

The push to crack down on illegal cell phones in state prisons has been going on for years, with South Carolina Corrections Director Bryan Stirling at the forefront of an effort by correctional directors across the country to call for the opportunity to use more technology. use it to crack down on contraband phones.

A step victory came in 2021, when the Federal Communications Commission passed a ruling that would allow state prison systems to apply for permits to identify and disable illegal mobile signals one by one, working with cell phone providers. South Carolina was the first state to apply to use this technology, but Stirling told the AP on Tuesday that no action has been taken on the state’s application.

Federal prisons are allowed to block cell signals behind bars, though none currently do, Stirling said.

CTIA, a wireless communications industry group, opposes jamming, saying it could thwart legal calls. But according to a 2020 FCC filing, CTIA told the commission “it has been working successfully, along with its member companies” to “stop service to contraband based on court orders they have obtained.”

CTIA officials called combating contraband phones “a serious problem,” CTIA officials said in a statement to the AP that the “wireless industry remains committed to working with corrections officers and policymakers at all levels of government to implement effective solutions that prevent contraband. fighting phones while protecting legal communications.”

FCC officials did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment about a renewed attempted jamming.

Congress has previously considered interference legislation, but no bills have been signed or even a hearing has been held. U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., reintroduced such a measure in August during the previous Congress.

“We’re not going to stop advocating,” Wilson told the AP on Tuesday. “I can only hope that Congress will take note of it at some point.”

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP

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