COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Flanked by dozens of wardens and a prison officer authorities say was nearly killed in an attack planned with a smuggled cell phone, Gov. Mark Sanford on Wednesday implored federal regulators to let South Carolina jam the signals of cell phones being used illicitly by prisoners.
"If we leave the things the way that they are, the federal government is fundamentally perpetuating an injustice, on the people of this state, and frankly, the people of this nation," Sanford said at a maximum security prison in Columbia.
Sanford urged the Federal Communications Commission to act on a nearly two-year-old request from Corrections Dept. Director Jon Ozmint to conduct a pilot jamming program inside a state prison. Ozmint says 30 other states signed on to that request.
The FCC has taken no action on the petition. Regulators say a 1934 law allows only federal agencies, not state or local ones, to jam public airwaves, a position reiterated Wednesday by the agency's public safety and homeland security chief.
"The problem with the South Carolina petition is, we can't waive federal statutes," said retired Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett. "As long as Congress has mandated that jamming is illegal, we have to abide by that law, and so does South Carolina."
Sanford was joined by Capt. Robert Johnson, a 15-year Corrections veteran who oversaw efforts to keep contraband out of Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville. Shot six times inside his home earlier this year in a hit state police say was planned using a smuggled cell phone, Johnson says jamming could have saved him eight surgeries and months of rehabilitation.
"I don't want someone else to go through what I've gone through. ... I would like to tell the industry to come talk to me and get off their bottom dollar and do what's right, and that is block cell phones," said Johnson, 57, who walks with a cane and does not know if he'll go back to work as a prison guard.
Authorities say Johnson is the first U.S. corrections officer harmed by a hit ordered from inmate's cell phone, but other people have been targets. A New Jersey inmate serving time for shooting at two police officers used a smuggled phone in 2005 to order a fatal attack on his girlfriend, who had given authorities information leading to his arrest.
After a Texas death row inmate in 2008 used a cell phone to threaten the life of a state senator, federal lawmakers introduced bills allowing states to petition the FCC for permission to jam calls. The Senate passed its version, but the House version has languished, and supporters don't expect it to move forward.
Opponents advocate alternative ways to combat smuggled phones, including something called managed access, which routes all calls coming from a certain area, regardless of carrier, to a third-party provider. That company checks each phone's signature against a database of approved numbers, blocking those that aren't on the list.
Mississippi activated one such system last month at a state penitentiary in Parchman and plan to expand it to two other facilities. Sanford said Wednesday that South Carolina is considering trying the same method, and Barnett said the FCC will work with other states.
"The skids have been greased," said Barnett, adding that Mississippi intercepted about 216,000 illegal phone calls in its first month using managed access. "What we need to do is pursue technologies that work and that we can employ now."
CTIA-The Wireless Association is a group that represents cell phone companies. President and CEO Steve Largent said in a statement that the wireless industry is working with Sanford on ways to nullify threats posed by contraband cell phones but advocated managed access over jamming, which he said can disrupt legitimate cell phone use nearby.
"People simply walking or driving by a facility's activated jammer could suffer degraded or disrupted wireless service," Largent said.
No arrests have been made in Johnson's case, though state police Chief Reggie Lloyd said Wednesday investigators believe the attacker was acting on directions from an inmate who had a cell phone, and he's confident arrests are imminent.
FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau: http://wireless.fcc.gov
CTIA-The Wireless Association: http://www.ctia.org