COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Federal Communications Commission is following through on its promise to work with corrections and public safety officials to combat contraband cellphones in the nation’s prisons, setting a meeting next month to work on the issue.
The meeting among state and federal prisons officials, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice, has been scheduled for February 7 at FCC headquarters, South Carolina Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told The Associated Press on Thursday.
The arrangement shows the agency is making good on Chairman Ajit Pai’s October pledge to U.S. Rep. David Kustoff that he would set up the meeting to address the problem of cellphones in the hands of inmates, an issue Stirling and others have called the chief security threat in their institutions.
“I share your concerns about the proliferation of contraband wireless devices in prisons and the potentially devastating implications for public safety,” Pai wrote then, in a letter obtained by AP. “We continue our efforts to push for even better procedures and solutions for this very serious problem.”
In that letter, Pai said he would set up the meeting in Washington, and report its progress to Congress. In a statement to AP on Thursday, Kustoff said he was pleased FCC officials were “keeping their promise” to hold the meeting and looked forward to working with Pai and others to combat “this deeply concerning public safety threat.”
The phones — smuggled by visitors and employees, thrown over fences, even delivered by drone — allow inmates unfettered ways to communicate both with each other and the outside world. Using the devices, officials have said inmates are able to carry on their criminal enterprises from behind bars, even order hits of violence on officers and prosecutors, and plan their escapes from captivity.
Thousands of phones are confiscated each year from state and federal facilities.
Stirling has become a leading voice in the national movement to use technology to cut off the signals. Last summer, he wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, beseeching the top prosecutor for help pursuing FCC permission to jam cell signals of the phones. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster also lobbied, writing Sessions a memo on the dangers of prison cellphones and thanking him for any help he could provide.
Pai, whose agency is charged with regulating the nation’s airwaves, has said the FCC can’t permit jamming, citing a decades-old law that prohibits interruption of the airwaves from state-level institutions. Wireless providers also object to the idea of jamming, arguing that signals from nearby, non-inmate devices could be affected.
But the FCC has been softening on the issue, thanks to persistent pleas from officials including Stirling, McMaster, Kustoff and other members of Congress, as well as federal officials.
The Bureau of Prisons — which is permitted to jam signals at its federal institutions but hasn’t routinely done so — conducted a test last week at a prison in Maryland. Assistant U.S. Attorney General Beth Williams, who had previously expressed her concerns about cellphones to Pai, told AP that the test represented “a big step” and could lead to the broader use of such technologies.