COLUMBIA - Corrections officials and members of Congress say they're hopeful a meeting this week with wireless industry representatives will lead to a solution that combats security issues posed by cellphones in the hands of the nation's inmates.
The Federal Communications Commission hosted the four-hour meeting Wednesday in Washington, making good on a promise last year by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Last year, Pai pledged to help facilitate the conversation among law enforcement, prisons officials and wireless providers, in hopes of battling the issue that corrections officers say is their chief safety threat behind bars.
"I am encouraged by how seriously the FCC is taking the issue of contraband cellphones in prisons," U.S. Rep. David Kustoff of Tennessee told The Associated Press on Thursday. "I look forward to the telecommunications industry working with state corrections officials to put a stop to this concerning public safety threat."
Kustoff has been among those pushing for a fix to the phone problem. He spoke with AP after being briefed by his state prisons director, who was one of several attending the meeting. Representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice and federal Bureau of Prisons were also at the meeting, as was U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, who has spoken out about the issue of cellphones in prison since his time as South Carolina's governor from 2002 to 2010.
Prisons officials say cellphones - smuggled into their institutions by the thousands, by visitors, errant employees and even delivered by drone - are dangerous because inmates use them to carry out crimes and plot violence both inside and outside prison.
Capt. Robert Johnson of Sumter, a veteran of 15 years as a corrections officer at Lee Correctional Institution, was shot six times at his home and left for dead after a hit was ordered from an inmate's cellphone.
Officials including South Carolina Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, who attended Wednesday's meeting, advocate cell signal jamming as a way to fix the problem.
The FCC, which regulates the nation's airwaves, has said it can't permit jamming in state prisons, citing a decades-old law that prohibits interruption of the airwaves at state-level institutions.
Wireless industry groups oppose jamming, saying they worry signal-blocking technologies could thwart legal calls. In a letter filed with the FCC last month, trade group CTIA wrote that court orders should be required to shut down devices in prison, arguing that judicial review will provide a way to shut down the devices while not interfering with legitimate cellphone calls nearby.
Representatives from CTIA attended Wednesday's meeting, which Stirling said he found encouraging. In a statement, the group thanked Pai for arranging the meeting and said its members "recognize the very real threat that contraband devices pose in correctional facilities across the nation, and we appreciate the commitment of all stakeholders to identify and implement lawful solutions to this problem."
Talking with AP after the meeting, Stirling said prisons and wireless providers plan to hold additional meetings in the coming months, in the hopes of finding common ground on a technological solution to stop the cellphone threat.
"I told them that seeing staff assaulted over cellphones has to stop," Stirling said. "We want to work with them on these solutions, but we need to start putting our correctional officers' safety and public safety first."
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