Politics & Government

Inmates with cellphones are a problem in SC prisons. Is this the solution?

S.C. officials think they may have an answer to stopping illegal cellphone use in the state's prisons.

State prisons now are barred by federal law from jamming contraband cellphones used by inmates inside prison walls. But an alternative to jamming is in place, and prison officials are ready to roll it out soon.

Prison officials have said cellphones illegally smuggled into Lee Correctional Institution played a role in spreading the April 15 riot at that prison that left seven inmates dead.

The day after the riot, state Department of Corrections Director Bryan Sterling, said officials think gang members inside one prison dorm used cellphones to tell other gang members in other dorms that a fight had broken out, spreading the riot to two other dorms.

In another dorm, where fighting didn't break out, the Lee County prison already had a system in place to block prisoners from using phones.

Maryland-based Tecore Networks is installing technology at Lee that will stop unauthorized devices from making calls, sending texts or connecting to the internet — without jamming all cell activity in and around the maximum security prison.

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Tecore has a $1.5 million, three-year contract to place its "managed access" system at Lee. Prison officials say the system should be fully operational by the end of May.

Tecore Chief Executive Jay Salkini told the Anderson Independent Mail his company uses an "intelligent network access controller" — mounted on its own cell tower on the prison grounds — to form a radio-frequency umbrella around a small area. The system blocks unauthorized users within the umbrella and also records information about any phones that attempt to make calls in the area.

The technology already has been installed at other prisons in Maryland and Mississippi, the paper reports. Federal prisons use similar technology.

Stirling long has argued for the ability to jam cellphone signals in state prisons, something federal regulations currently don't allow.

Stirling told The State Tecore's managed-access system falls short of fully jamming cellphones and also is more expensive than jamming.

"The way that this technology is being implemented here at SCDC is the best legal alternative to contraband cellphone jamming that we have available," Stirling said. "While we believe it is the best legal form of contraband cellphone deterrence, it is very different than blocking. We believe it is more expensive and are therefore still pushing for jamming."

Other prison experts say controlling cellphones only will go so far if the issues inside a prison that lead to violence aren't addressed.

"In the past, they organized these takeovers by word of mouth. They could have passed notes to each other," said Donald Leach, a former jail administrator in Lexington, Ky., who now consults with the National Institute of Corrections.

"They want to put more people in jail, but they don't want to pay for it," he said. "You just get more people in the box without more staff, more resources or more support programs."

Gov. Henry McMaster toured Lee Correctional on Saturday with Stirling and other officials. McMaster said the riot had "busted the place up."

"I was told the actual fight didn't last that long," McMaster said Tuesday, noting the prison had "more (staff) there than usual because it was shift change."

"But there was no way they could go in to stop them because there were 200 people in there," he said. "You would need an entire airborne division."

McMaster noted he has signed three executive orders related to prisons since he became governor last year — declaring a state of emergency in S.C. prisons because of cellphones, permitting members of the State Guard to patrol prison perimeters to stop items being thrown inside and boosting pay for corrections officers.

The governor said Tuesday that he is hopeful federal officials will be more willing to allow prisons to jam cellphones in the aftermath of the riot at Lee.

"Now, they are showing some more flexibility," he said.

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