Editorial: FCC can help with contraband cellphones in Oklahoma prisons

Oklahoma’s DOC says the federal government needs to let signal-jamming technology be used in parts of prison where inmates move around


The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City

OKLAHOMA — Gov. Kevin Stitt is looking for ways to crack down on the use of contraband cellphones in Oklahoma’s prisons. It’s a worthwhile pursuit, although the most effective tool may rest with the federal government.

Following a string of gang-related fights at six prisons during a recent weekend, Stitt has issued an executive order for the secretaries of public safety and digital transformation and the acting head of the Corrections Department “to explore all possible technology solutions … in order to abate the safety concern.”

Contraband cellphones have been a longstanding problem. In May, the DOC said it had confiscated nearly 1,800 illegal cellphones since January, and more than 48,500 since 2011. Correctional officers confiscated a record 9,766 cellphones in 2016, the agency said.

The DOC director at the time used those totals to underscore the need for the government to allow the use of signal-jamming technology in certain parts of prison. It’s a call that’s been made for years from corrections directors nationwide.

In Oklahoma, gangs have used the phones to carry out kidnappings, murders, assaults, drug buys and money laundering, officials say. In the latest case, they were used to coordinate the fights that left one prisoner dead and led to a systemwide lockdown.

Cellphones often are smuggled into prison by loved ones. Catching them is a challenge, given that a single correctional officer may be overseeing a few hundred people during the visits. The DOC has said kitchens are common areas through which phones enter prison, and some are dropped onto prison grounds by drones.

Stitt wants the two secretaries and the DOC boss to pursue all possible tech solutions, “including geo-location systems, cellphone jammers, micro cellphone jammers, controlled access systems and hybrid systems …” He called it “a technology issue that must be answered with a technology solution.”

The officials also are to look at how the federal prison system deals with illegal cellphones. In April, the Department of Justice for the first time conducted a pilot test of micro-jamming technology at a state prison in South Carolina. The DOJ said results were promising. The agency previously had conducted tests at two federal prisons in Maryland.

In May, Oklahoma’s DOC said the federal government needed to let signal-jamming technology be used in parts of prison where inmates move around. That wouldn’t affect prison staff, because they use radios to communicate.

Only federal agencies can obtain authorization to jam public airwaves — state and local prisons cannot. In a story last week about the jamming tests in South Carolina, The Associated Press said the Federal Communications Communication has shown “willingness to work on the issue.” But the FCC needs to go further by providing states a way to shut down cellphone signals inside their prison walls, and thus curb a dangerous and continuing problem.

©2019 The Oklahoman

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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