GOP governors ask FCC to address illegal prison cellphones

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Ten Republican governors want the Federal Communications Commission to give states more autonomy to apply technology that can stop prison inmates from using smuggled cellphones.

Gov. Nikki Haley and her counterparts encouraged FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler in a letter Monday to give them "flexibility and authority" to render such communication impossible.

While the letter doesn't explicitly say so, what the governors want is permission to jam cellphone signals behind bars.

A 1934 law says the FCC can grant permission to jam public airwaves only to federal agencies, not state or local ones. The cellphone industry has strongly opposed the use of localized jamming technology out of concern that it could set a precedent leading to much wider gaps in their networks.

The governors say the technology would be strictly limited to prisons, and that society outside would not suffer.

"The FCC should act to streamline regulatory review processes and allow states to implement cost-efficient technology in prisons, where the installation of such technology will not sacrifice the safety of the general public," reads the letter, which was proposed by Haley and also signed by governors from Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah.

Haley has long spoken of the dangers of illegal cellphones behind bars. Smuggled by the thousands inside hollowed out footballs, whisked in by corrupt employees or sometimes even dropped by drone, these phones can give inmates an unmonitored, unfettered means of continuing their crimes and even perpetrating violence.

"This is something that has a solution to it," Haley testified last month at an FCC field hearing in Columbia. She said the state has tried other methods, none as effective as signal blocking. "Allow us to jam our prisons. ... Something has to change."

Robert Johnson, a former anti-contraband officer at one of South Carolina's most violent prisons, was shot six times outside his Sumter home in 2010, after police said an inmate used an illegal cellphone to order the hit. He survived, enduring more than a dozen surgeries, and has become an advocate for using jamming technology in prisons.

South Carolina Corrections Director Bryan Stirling and his predecessor, Jon Ozmint, also have sought this permission, to no avail.

In 2008, South Carolina got FCC permission for a one-time test at Lieber Correctional Institution, home to the state's death row. Officials flipped a switch on a briefcase-sized device that emitted a frequency that immediately shut down cellphones inside an auditorium. Outside in the hallway, cell service was uninterrupted.

Commissioner Ajit Pai, who oversaw April's field hearing, called the status quo "not acceptable" and said he would renew a discussion about next steps.

In a statement provided to The Associated Press, Wheeler said he agreed contraband cellphones are "a serious problem" and would work with Pai on the issue.

Asked Tuesday about Haley's letter, Pai said it's time for the agency to act.

"The FCC needs to take a leadership role in helping corrections officials combat this problem," Pai told AP. "We must take action, and now."


James Nord in Pierre, South Dakota, contributed to this report.


Kinnard can be reached at . Read more of her work at