Smuggled Cell Phones Remain a Problem for State Prisons, But Progress is Being Made

Mar 15, 2019

Credit Pixabay

Just as business is conducted with cell phones every day in the Palmetto State, illegal business is also conducted daily - by convicts with cell phones smuggled into South Carolina prisons.  

The technology exists to jam these phone signals to stop the crimes - such as murder, drug sales, etc. - being planned and ordered with the phones, but Bryan Stirling, director of the state Department of Corrections, says that federal law prohibits interference with any radio signal, which is what cell phone calls are.  Thus, it's illegal for authorities to jam these signals, which would then reduce smuggled cell phones to being nothing more than "paperweights," says Stirling.

However, other efforts to reduce the smuggling of phones into prisons are having success.  One such method is the erection of 50-foot netting around prisons that prevent the phones from being thrown over prison fences, which is the most common way of getting phones, drugs, money and other contraband to prisoners.  Stirling said "I was told by a lawyer that one of his clients told him that cell phones at a facility in Columbia used to cost $100 apiece.  Now with the netting that we put up, and the scanners and everything we have, it's $1500 for an old school flip phone and $2000 for a smart phone.  That tells me that what we're doing is working." 

Cell phones also are a problem for the Richland County jail, but apparently not for most smaller counties.  Capt. Nick Gallan of the Aiken County Sheriff's Department said unlike the state penitentiaries, county jails don't have exercise yards where inmates' friends can throw contraband over the fence, and most inmates aren't in for long periods of time, so the opportunity for smuggling is less than at state prisons - although deputies do intercept weapons, drugs and occasional cell phones while processing inmates into the jail.

While waiting - and lobbying - for the federal law to change, and catch up with modern technology, Stirling has another wish for preventing the use of illegal phones - a "geo fence," an electronic fence that cell phone companies would put around the prison to shut off all communications and that would not leak signals.  "That's the thing that they're concerned about with jammings, it leaks outside the institutions." 

But until these changes occur, prison officials will have to keep up the fight to stay a step ahead of creative criminals, said Stirling.  "We know that every time we make a move, do something security-wise, they're gonna find another way.  It's been this way since prisons were built."

The director said if prisoners would use their energy and creativity for good, they - and society - would be a lot better off.