• Justice Dept. hopes 'micro-jammers' will block inmates' cellphone signals

    By: Blaine Tolison


    WASHINGTON - In an effort to prevent inmates from organizing crimes while behind bars, the government will soon block calls from cellphones smuggled into federal prisons.

    Thousands of cellphones are confiscated from prisoners every year, and the justice department will start testing "micro-jammers" to disrupt cellphone signals inside federal prisons.

    "This is big news for public safety, not only in the federal system, but I believe in the state correctional systems across this country." South Carolina's Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said.

    But there are concerns about disrupting surrounding areas and emergency calls.

    The Bureau of Prisons confiscated 5,116 phones in 2016, and early numbers for 2017 show an increase.

    "They are physically incarcerated, but virtually they can continue their criminal ways from behind bars," Stirling said.

    Federal prisons also face a threat from drones, but officials said that technology to stop them is still emerging.


    Eyewitness News has investigated the problem of drones and cellphones in prisons for years.

    This past May, reporter Paul Boyd uncovered inmates using contraband phones from inside South Carolina prisons, and even streaming live videos of prison attacks on social media. Boyd found that inmates spend upward of $800 per phone, which gives them an unregulated internet connection.

    "We're doing everything we can to try to stop these phones from coming in," Stirling said.

    In North Carolina, a report from Duke University encourages safety improvements following a deadly attempted prison break last year in Elizabeth City.

    Congressional and state leaders hope to meet with the FCC this year to discuss changing the Communications Act. In a letter urging the FCC to take action, the Department of Justice wrote that it could cost $1 million to $2 million per prison to disrupt cellphone signals.

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