SC lawmaker urges FCC to combat prison cellphones
Rep. Mark Sanford asked that states be allowed to use technology to jam the signals of cellphones smuggled to inmates behind bars
By Meg Kinnard
COLUMBIA, S.C. — A former South Carolina governor now in Congress wants federal communications officials to help combat the danger of cellphones in the hands of prison inmates, asking Thursday that states be allowed to use technology to jam the signals of cellphones smuggled to inmates behind bars.
"You could make a real difference here," wrote U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford in a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. "In fact, there are very few things in domestic public policy that entail life and death itself. This issue does, and your actions here could literally save lives and make a profound difference."
Sanford is one of many South Carolina officials who for years have spoken out about the dangers of cellphones, which are illegal for inmates to have in prison, warning that the devices give inmates the unfettered ability to communicate among themselves and the outside world, plotting violent uprisings and carrying on criminal enterprises. More than 7,200 cellphones were seized from South Carolina's prisons last year, according to corrections officials.
Most recently, an inmate was able to escape from a maximum-security South Carolina prison in part thanks to help from a smuggled cellphone, officials said. Jimmy Causey was on the run for three days before he was captured near Austin, Texas on July 7. Officials said he used tools delivered by drone to cut through a series of fences at Lieber Correctional Institution.
Governor from 2003 to 2011, Sanford was South Carolina's top politician when one of the state's prison officers was nearly killed in a hit authorities said was orchestrated by an inmate using a cellphone behind bars. In 2010, Sanford stood with Correction Capt. Robert Johnson to call on FCC officials to act on a petition to let the state start a pilot signal jamming program.
The FCC prohibits states from using the technology.
"Despite the clear danger illegal cellphones present, the FCC caved in to industry special interests and refused to allow South Carolina to carry out its proposed pilot program," Sanford said, referencing pressure by cellphone companies. The companies argue that signal jamming could affect legal users nearby and interfere with 911 calls.
The issue, Sanford wrote, has grown more severe. In June, six correctional officers were rescued after an attempted confiscation of an inmate's cellphone prompted a fight at a medium-security prison in Edgefield County, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) northeast of Augusta, Georgia. Two officers were treated for non-life-threatening injuries.
A few days earlier, nearly three dozen people were charged with being part of a methamphetamine ring run by South Carolina inmates using smuggled cellphones. Earlier this year, Stirling and Johnson traveled to Washington to lobby members of Congress on the issue.
"This significant threat to public safety continues to grow, with more phones being seized in prisons each year as potential solutions have languished due to the lack of FCC action and opposition by powerful special interests," Sanford wrote. "Thank you for your consideration, and I look forward to seeing you on the Hill in the not-too-distant future."