Congress calls on FCC to silence cellphones in prisons

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — More than 50 members of Congress are giving federal regulators a deadline for resolving how to prevent prisoners from using contraband cellphones behind bars.

In a letter dated October 4 and obtained Thursday by The Associated Press, 48 House members and four U.S. senators wrote to the Federal Communications Commission, calling the security threat posed by contraband cellphones "an issue of critical importance."

Inmates use the phones, the members of Congress wrote, to continue the violent crimes and gang activity that landed them behind bars in the first place. The signees, which include both of South Carolina's U.S. senators and all of its Republican House members, asked the FCC to set up a meeting with state prison officials, cellphone companies and the FBI within 120 days, and to report back to Congress on their progress. FCC officials said Thursday they had received the letter and are reviewing it.

The letter is the latest direct call for action on the phones — thrown over fences, smuggled by employees, even delivered by drone — which prison directors call the biggest threat to prison security. A decades-old law says federal officials can grant permission to jam the public airwaves only to federal agencies, not state or local ones. Telecommunications companies are opposed, saying jamming cell signals could set a bad precedent and interfere with legal cell users nearby.

Earlier this year, South Carolina Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, a leading voice on the need to eradicate the phones from prisons, wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, beseeching the top prosecutor for help pursuing FCC permission to jam cell signals.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster also lobbied, writing Sessions in August a memo on the dangers of prison cellphones and thanking him for any help he could provide. Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams also weighed in, telling FCC officials that addressing the security threat posed "should be a chief priority" of both the FCC and Justice, which oversees the federal Bureau of Prisons.

In their letter, the members of Congress note that some on the Hill would like to fix the issue by congressional mandate, but they would prefer a more "collaborative approach."

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has signaled willingness to work on the issue. In March, after Pai took testimony from Stirling and a former South Carolina corrections officer who was nearly killed in an assassination attempt orchestrated by an inmate using an illegal phone, commissioners voted 3-0 to approve rules to streamline the process for using technology to detect and block contraband phones in prisons and jails across the country.

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Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP. Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/