National prosecutors group pressing FCC on prison cellphones

National prosecutors group pressing FCC on prison cellphones

A group of national prosecutors is pressing federal regulators to find a solution to the dangers they say are posed by inmates' access to illegal cellphones inside prisons, adding their voices to others adamant that a technological fix is needed to shut down the dangerous devices.

In a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, National District Attorneys Association President Michael Freeman writes his members have seen effects of inmates' use of cellphones, such as witness intimidation and harassment.

"The numbers appear to keep rising at the expense of public safety," Freeman wrote, noting that 13,000 cellphones were confiscated in Georgia's prisons in 2014. "As Chairman, you have also expressed the desire for the FCC to further address this issue, and we strongly encourage you to do so as soon as possible."

The letter, which is dated October 27, was obtained Thursday by The Associated Press. It's the latest in growing calls for the FCC to do something to quell the problems caused by the phones, which corrections officials say allow inmates to continue their criminal enterprises behind bars and even plot acts of violence against the officers who guard them and people outside prison.

South Carolina prisons director Bryan Stirling has been among the most vocal in the country in speaking out about how dangerous the phones, thrown over fences, smuggled by employees — even delivered by drone — can be in the hands of prisoners. Last year, he took Pai on a tour of a South Carolina prison to show him firsthand the benefit of technologies such as jamming, which renders cell signals useless.

Stirling, who says the phones present the biggest threat to prison security, has been exploring technological solutions to shut down smuggled phones. But he and other directors have been hampered by a decades-old law that says federal officials may grant permission to jam the public airwaves only to federal agencies, but not state or local ones.

Telecommunications companies are opposed, saying jamming cell signals could set a bad precedent and interfere with legal cell users nearby.

Pai has signaled willingness to work on the issue. In March, after Pai took testimony from Stirling and a former South Carolina corrections officer who was nearly killed in an assassination attempt orchestrated by an inmate using an illegal phone, commissioners voted 3-0 to approve rules to streamline the process for using technology to detect and block contraband phones in prisons and jails across the country.

Facing mounting pressure from directors like Stirling, as well as U.S. Justice Department officials and members of Congress, Pai has said he'll arrange a meeting with corrections officials, telecom companies and the FBI, reporting progress back to Congress.

"I share your concerns about the proliferation of contraband wireless devices in prisons and the potentially devastating implications for public safety," Pai wrote last month in a letter to U.S. Rep. David Kustoff of Tennessee. "We continue our efforts to push for even better procedures and solutions for this very serious problem."


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