US prisons use new tech to dial down illegal cellphones

Inmates make phone calls from their cell in a California jail, May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Inmates make phone calls from their cell in a California jail, May 24, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

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US prison officials harness new technology to crack down on contraband cellphones but some still want powers to jam signals

  • South Carolina programme shuts off more than 800 phones
  • Federal action on broader signal jamming tech seen as unlikely
  • Activists raise privacy, rights concerns for prisoners

RICHMOND, Virginia - As director of South Carolina's Department of Corrections, Bryan Stirling believes he knows what is needed to make the state's 21 penal institutions safer while also protecting people outside the prison walls.

Ideally, Stirling would like to have the power to jam phone signals from the state's prisons to tackle the scourge of illegal cellphones being used to facilitate crimes ranging from sex trafficking to murder-for-hire and drug dealing. 

But this action has been prohibited under federal law for decades, and there is no immediate sign of change despite numerous appeals from law enforcement officers across the country, including a letter from top state prosecutors to the leaders of Congress last year.   

With no movement likely in the near future, South Carolina opted for a pilot programme that allowed authorities in Lee Correctional Institution to identify and shut down contraband cellphones. More than 800 phones have been shut off at Lee since last July, out of an inmate population of about 1,100. 

"We call it a pilot, but it's basically the system in there now," said Stirling. "We are using this technology in Lee and we will continue to use this technology until we can secure the money to do it everywhere."

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Under the programme, officials identify contraband phones through a unique identification number and then submit them to carriers to have them disabled. Now, the state is pushing for more money to expand the scheme, which uses technology from Tecore Networks, to other prisons. 

"Probably the number one threat to public safety behind prison walls is the ability to communicate with people on the outside to facilitate the same criminal activity that put you (in) prison to begin with," South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, who spearheaded the letter to Congress last year, told Context.

Digital privacy rights advocates and tech experts say even solutions less far-reaching than full-blown signal jamming - like the South Carolina pilot - threaten to trample on the rights of prisoners by, for example, sharing legally protected information with private phone companies or carriers.

"We have seen time and time again that in pursuit (of) preventing harm, bad things, the supposed hits on prison staff, all manner of sin is forgiven," said Sascha Meinrath, a telecommunications expert at Penn State University.

"And that is not rule of law."

'Chilling options'

Digital rights groups have long raised concerns over the push for cellphone jamming systems in prisons, describing them as overreach.

Under federal law, state and local facilities are not allowed to use jamming technology, which is opposed by the telecommunications industry amid concerns that it could knock out signals in areas surrounding prisons.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates communications technology in the U.S., has been wary of signing off on full-blown signal jamming but cleared the way within the last few years for states like South Carolina to implement so-called "contraband interdiction systems."

Stirling is convinced signal jamming is a solid option but does not think it will be authorised in state prisons. It is already allowed in federal institutions.

"I would love to get jamming – I don't see it happening, unfortunately," he said. 

Asked if the FCC was contemplating changes, a spokesperson pointed to the federal law banning jamming devices.

Albert Fox Cahn, founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.), says both jamming and interdiction systems like the one used in South Carolina are "chilling options" that could have unintended consequences. 

"The idea that a prison official can simply designate a phone as being problematic and have it disconnected without any process or oversight is just really ripe for abuse," he said.

Stirling says that weeding out illicit phones in prisons is also needed to bolster the fight against drug trafficking. 

"Fentanyl is a large, large conversation right now, killing a lot of people in the United States. I think we would put a significant dent into the fentanyl trade by stopping these phones," he said. 

In his proposed budget for the 2024-2025 fiscal year, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster earmarked at least $23 million to start implementation of an interdiction system, like the one used at Lee, at all 21 state prisons.

Stirling is not alone in wanting to go further.

Wilson, the attorney general, described the phone shut-off scheme as like "playing whack-a-mole" whereas introducing jamming technology would be "like putting an iron dome over the prison ... they can set that dome within a number of feet".    

'Make phone calls free'

Rights activists say signal jamming risks denying inmates connections with the outside world, and they argue that reducing the costs of phone calls - or making them free - would be a less intrusive solution than targeted phone shut-off schemes. 

"They could just make phone calls free. And there's this false narrative, I think, that everyone who has a contraband cellphone has a contraband cellphone because they want to commit crime," said Bianca Tylek, executive director of Worth Rises, an advocacy group.

But Stirling refutes that argument, saying that he wants people to be able to connect with family members, which they can do from their cells via monitored tablets.

"You can talk to your family for 15 minutes and it costs 83 cents, versus $6,000 to get the phone inside and then you've got to pay the monthly fees and everything," he said.  

He said the fact that "legitimate phone calls" had increased by about 68% once the pilot scheme was getting underway showed that the programme was having the intended effect.

"The other thing that tells me it's working is that our search team went into one of the dorms soon after we started this and (people) started sliding their cellphones ... under the doors because they didn't want to get caught with a contraband charge, a cellphone charge, which could then lead to disciplinary action."

The use of new tech in prisons has long raised concerns among digital rights activists. In 2022, dozens of rights groups demanded a crackdown on an artificial intelligence system used to eavesdrop on prisoners' phone calls, after a Context investigation highlighted the risk of rights violations.

Meinrath of Penn State worries that even simpler schemes like the one in South Carolina could start a dangerous drift that would affect rights both inside and outside prison walls. 

"There's this variable – being in prison. So, you don't have the same rights," he said. "On the other hand, you know, one of the hallmarks of real terrible authoritarian dictatorships is they cut off communications."

(Reporting by David Sherfinski; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile.)

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