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SC officials seek new ways to block prisoner cellphone use

Shortly before noon on September 11, 2018, Jared Johns, a former Army private, settled himself on his bed, switched on the camera of his iPhone, and bid a heartfelt goodbye to his family.

Towards the end of the two-minute video, Johns's eyes widened in alarm as he read a message on his screen: "She is going to the police, and you will end up in jail," the message revealed.

Following his time in Afghanistan, Johns exhaled slowly, then placed a 9 mm handgun under his chin and pulled the trigger.

Among the victims of a reprehensible "sextortion" scheme were countless former and current service members, including a 24-year-old veteran. Tragically, this young individual took his own life as a result of the scheme, which revolved around impostors posing as underage girls on dating sites. Prosecutors have revealed that these scam artists sought to extort money from men who fell into their trap.

Nonetheless, the most surprising aspect of the storyline in Johns' case was that it was allegedly carried out by inmates at Lee Correctional Institution, a high-security prison located in South Carolina about 150 miles east of Greenville. Additionally, the inmates accomplished this using smartphones - prohibited devices that were supposed to be blocked by the prison's $1.7 million "managed access system."

Prison officials, in conjunction with specific federal entities, are proposing the procurement of a more sophisticated and potentially more costly technology to halt illegal cellular and Wi-Fi communication from contraband phones in correctional facilities: a signal blocker device that can effectively block all calls within its coverage area.

Bryan P. Stirling, the head of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, has highlighted that prisoners, although physically imprisoned, maintain their digital autonomy.

Nonetheless, a number of experts raise red flags about the utilization of jamming technology, as recently tested by the federal Bureau of Prisons within a South Carolina correctional facility. They highlight the potential risks it poses to public safety, including the interference with emergency 911 calls and other cellphone services in close proximity. In the case of rural prisons, the concern centers around the impact on drivers utilizing local roads and highways. Furthermore, these experts assert that the effectiveness of this technology is highly unlikely.

Jamming all calls, even to 911

The proposal to utilize cellphone jammers, a technology that has historically faced resistance from the communications industry, has been suggested by corrections officials and federal agencies as a means to address these problems. The objective is to effectively block all calls, even those made from phones owned by staff or emergency workers.

While managed access systems grant permission for calls based on pre-approved numbers, jammers have the capacity to indiscriminately disrupt all frequencies, including data and Wi-Fi. This poses a particular issue for the nation's 911 phone system, which relies on a frequency that is in close proximity to those utilized by commercial carriers.

Only federal officials are legally allowed to utilize jammers, and solely in specific instances related to national security. Nonetheless, with the support of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who was appointed by President Trump in 2017, and the U.S. Department of Justice, the utilization of jammers within prisons might be sanctioned.

In September, the department and state officials released statements indicating that a test conducted at South Carolina's Broad River Correctional Institution showed that a micro-jammer could block calls within a cell block, while allowing "legitimate calls" a foot away from the walls.

However, the technical report issued by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration took a slightly different stance. It emphasized that the test solely employed one out of the 14 necessary jammers to disrupt calls in half of the cellblock. Moreover, the report highlighted the detection of jamming signals at a minimum distance of 65 feet, although the actual impact on regular cell-phone service remained uncertain.

on June 5 at 5:38

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