Fatal prison riots: What S.C. leaders have failed to do about illegal cell phones

May 3, 2018

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

For years, S.C. officials have repeatedly tried – and failed – to convince the federal government to allow jamming of signals in prisons from contraband cell phones routinely used by inmates.

But officials haven’t worked nearly as hard to try to persuade wireless carriers to voluntarily block their own signals in prisons, which, according to corrections officials, the companies are permitted to do, though it is against federal law for states or local governments to do it.

And officials also have been slow to explore a technology allowed by federal regulators to combat illegal cell phones and available nationwide since 2010.

The April 15 deaths of seven inmates at the maximum-security Lee Correctional Institution in Lee County – called the worst fatal prison rioting in the U.S. in 25 years – have brought renewed attention to past and current decisions by state prison officials and the Governor’s Office.

The riots – which also injured 22 inmates and occurred just over a year after four prisoners were killed by other inmates at the maximum-security Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia – were coordinated with illegal cell phones, Gov. Henry McMaster wrote in an executive order issued eight days later.

State officials have known since at least 2010 – the end of Gov. Mark Sanford’s administration – of a technology approved by federal regulators that can prevent inmates from using cell phones, which are banned for prisoners under state law, a review by The Nerve found.

But the state didn’t award its first contract for that technology until last September – the year when McMaster became governor – and was only testing it on experimental basis at Lee Correctional when last month’s riots occurred in a prison area not covered by the technology, records show.

McMaster’s executive order on April 23 allows, among other things, the state corrections agency to make emergency procurements that will “assist in securing prison facilities and making prisons safe for employees and those incarcerated.” The department’s director is Bryan Stirling, who was then-Gov. Nikki Haley’s chief of staff in 2013 when she selected him as the corrections director.

In his order, McMaster said the corrections department seized 6,272 contraband cell phones in 2017; and that during last month’s riots, inmates “filmed the riots on cell phones, posting videos and pictures of the incident.”

It was McMaster’s second emergency order involving the corrections agency since becoming governor in January 2017 after President Donald Trump named Haley as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. On Feb. 27 of this year, McMaster ordered the South Carolina State Guard to help corrections staff with manning the outside of prisons to prevent contraband, including cell phones, from being thrown over prison walls or being delivered by drones.

Yet McMaster, who previously served as the U.S. attorney for South Carolina and the state attorney general, has not, since becoming governor, publicly pushed cell phone carriers to help the state control the rampant use of contraband phones.

Likewise, Haley didn’t publicly pursue that option when she was governor, focusing instead near the end of her term – and following Sanford’s lead – on trying to get the Federal Communications Commission to change its rules on jamming, The Nerve’s review found.

Jon Ozmint, a former chief prosecutor with the state grand jury who served as the corrections director from 2003 to 2011 under Sanford, told The Nerve that cell phone companies can legally block their own signals in prisons, though he added they have shown no interest in doing that. The FCC did not answer repeated requests by The Nerve for comment on Ozmint’s statements.

Ozmint said Sanford, now a U.S. congressman, was the first governor to “call carriers out about their unwillingness to fix this,” noting Sanford while governor met with wireless carrier representatives, though no agreement was reached then.

On Monday, the Idaho-based Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA), and CTIA, a Washington, D.C.-based organization representing the wireless communications industry, met in Washington to discuss contraband cell phone issues.

Asked if carrier representatives specifically committed during the meeting to blocking their own signals in prisons, Josh Tewalt, ASCA’s director of operations, told The Nerve afterward, “No, but what we committed to was a process to evaluate that technology.”

That includes not only existing technology, such as the type of system that Lee Correctional is implementing, but also “carrier-supported solutions,” Tewalt said, noting when questioned that carriers can legally block their own signals in prisons.

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution,” he said. “You have different considerations in a rural environment than you do in an urban environment. It’s looking at the existing technologies – really how to frame some best practices for those.”

The ASCA and CTIA organizations in a prepared joint statement issued after Monday’s meeting said they “launched an initiative today to begin to identify and test solutions in the coming months for stamping out the use of contraband cellphones,” though no details were given.

CTIA did not respond to a written message this week from The Nerve seeking comment. A spokesman for another Washington, D.C.-based wireless carrier organization, the Competitive Carriers Association, declined comment when asked about issues related to contraband cell phones and the wireless industry.

No ‘silver bullet’

In an interview last week with the Nerve, Stirling, a former deputy state attorney general, said he wanted to see whether a technology commonly referred to as “managed access systems” worked in a pilot test program at Lee Correctional before deciding whether to expand it to the entire prison – which he noted is being done now.

The state is under a three-year, $1.65 million contract with Maryland-based Tecore Inc. for the technology, which was not deployed in several dorms where last month’s riots occurred, Stirling said.

In 2016 and last year, Stirling said he sent “fact-finding” teams from his agency to prison systems in Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Mississippi to “design something differently, and they came back with a design, and we’re going to try it.”

Tecore Inc. has been using its technology at a Mississippi state prison since 2010 and at two Baltimore prisons since around 2012, Markie Britton, Tecore’s vice president of corporate communications, told The Nerve. She declined to discuss the current South Carolina contract, referring all questions to the corrections agency.

Since 2010, the FCC has authorized managed access systems at more than 50 correctional facilities in 17 states, according to a 2017 agency report.

Asked why managed access technology, given its long use nationwide, wasn’t installed years earlier at Lee Correctional and other maximum-security prisons in South Carolina, Stirling told The Nerve, “When I go to my national meetings and talk to other directors, no one has said managed access is the silver bullet for cell phones.”

Stirling said he believes jamming technology is ultimately “the answer,” noting the technology “is a lot less expensive” compared to managed access systems, “so we would be able to do it in more institutions.”

Speaking generally, Britton, Tecore’s spokeswoman, said jamming is “always sold as an easy solution … that it’s cheaper and that it’s very simple to deploy – and it’s not.”

Federal regulators have prohibited state and local governments from jamming signals in prisons largely because, experts say, of fears the technology will block 911 calls within prisons and legal calls near the outside of prisons.

Managed access systems allow prisons to block attempted contraband cell phone calls and text messages while allowing authorized calls and texts to go through. Those systems only work if all wireless carriers serving a particular prison participate in the system and don’t manipulate their signals after system is activated, experts say.

The FCC requires spectrum lease agreements between wireless carriers and managed access companies, and separate authorization for experimental pilot projects. The FCC authorized the Tecore Inc. pilot project at Lee Correctional from last Nov. 1 through Tuesday, according to FCC records.

The state Department of Administration, which, as with the Department of Corrections, is a Cabinet agency under the governor’s control, awarded a contract to Tecore effective last Sept. 8, state records show.

Stirling said he won’t know whether managed access technology could be used in other South Carolina prisons until he sees whether the Tecore system is successful after being fully operational at Lee Correctional. The state prison system has 21 facilities and about 19,500 inmates as of this week, department records show.

Stirling’s office did not respond last week or this to follow-up questions from The Nerve, including questions about what former Gov. Haley and McMaster communicated to Stirling over the years about combatting the contraband cell phone problem.

Fixated on the FCC

When he was the corrections director in 2010, Ozmint said the state needed a mix of technologies to block illegal cell signals, including managed access systems, which at the time had been approved by the FCC on a pilot basis. But he also said then he believed jamming was the most cost-effective method to deal with the thousands of prepaid cell phones smuggled into state prisons annually.

“Jamming is better than what we have, but it’s going to be expensive as well,” Ozmint told The Nerve last week, “so the real answer is, carriers need to fix it.”

The FCC has repeatedly declined over the years to reverse its anti-jamming interpretation of the 1934 Federal Communications Act.  In well-publicized events, then-Gov. Sanford and Ozmint unsuccessfully tried to convince the FCC in 2008 and again in 2010 to relax its rules.

As for former Gov. Haley, The Nerve could not find records of any public actions taken by her on contraband cell phones between the time she took office in January 2011 to the start of 2016 when she was well into her second term.

Repeating Sanford’s action plan, Haley, at an FCC field hearing in Columbia in April 2016, asked that jamming restrictions be eased. The next month, she, along with nine other governors, including now-U.S. Vice President Mike Pence of Indiana, sent a letter to the FCC asking the agency to give states greater freedom to combat contraband cell phones.

The FCC didn’t change its anti-jamming position but in March 2017 adopted rules aimed at making it easier for operators of technologies known as “Contraband Interdiction Systems” to obtain FCC approval.

It’s unclear, however, whether S.C. leaders will act quickly enough on other options to prevent future prison riots.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve. Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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