Prisons Look to FCC and Industry to Solve Dangerous Illegal Cell Phone Issue

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“I was shot six times — all for doing my job.” That’s what Captain Robert Johnson (ret.) of the South Carolina Department of Corrections told the FCC Commissioners on Thursday before they voted on an order that makes it easier for prisons to contract with companies to intercept and block calls from contraband phones.

Johnson, who underwent his 24th surgery resulting from his injuries last week, vividly described how gang members in the prison Johnson worked at were angry the corrections officer intercepted an illegal package. So they ordered him to be killed. A gang member came to his home and shot him at close range seven years ago, Johnson said.

“This was locked-up gang members using cell phones.” The South Carolina Department of Corrections tested a cell phone blocking technology before he was shot, Johnson said.  “The cell phone industry doesn’t want this to happen. I believe it has to do with money. How many people have to die before the cell phone industry becomes good citizens?” Johnson asked rhetorically. 

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai agreed the FCC needs to act, noting that cell phones are smuggled into prisons in several ways and he’s seen “officials pulling them out of prisons by the truckload.” More than 87,000 illegal cell phones were recovered from federal prisons between 2012 and 2014. “Prison officials say removing a phone is the most dangerous part of their job. A prisoner will do anything to keep their device,” Pai said.  

Some prisons have implemented radio-based technologies to detect and block the use of illegal cell phones that make and receive phone calls and send and receive text messages, as well as block access to the internet (including use of apps). These Contraband Interdiction Systems (CISs), use commercial spectrum and require FCC authorization to operate.

The order adopted Thursday makes it easier for CIS operators to get FCC authorization, overnight if necessary, officials said during the meeting. The order stresses that CIS operators must have agreements with every carrier providing service in the area and wireless providers are required to cooperate with CIS providers and correction officials “in a timely manner.”

Adding that the FCC can’t by itself solve the problem of prisoners using cell phones to order murders, smuggle drugs and scam prisoner’s families, Pai said the Commission will explore other solutions too. That’s why the agency will issue a Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to seek additional public input.   

March 24, 2017   

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