2024-06-05 11:39:54

SC officials seek new ways to block prisoner cellphone use

Prior to midday on September 11, 2018, Jared Johns, a former Army private, positioned himself on his bed, activated the camera on his iPhone, and bid farewell to his loved ones.

As the two-minute video neared its conclusion, Johns's eyes grew wide upon reading a message on his screen: "She is heading to the authorities, and you will be incarcerated," the message stated.

Johns, a veteran of the Afghanistan conflict, inhaled deeply before positioning a 9 mm handgun beneath his chin and squeezing the trigger.

A large number of ex and current military personnel, including a 24-year-old veteran, have fallen victim to a malicious scheme known as "sextortion." This tragic plot, which resulted in the young veteran's suicide, involved deceitful individuals pretending to be underage girls on dating platforms. These scam artists then tried to extort money from men who fell into their trap, according to prosecutors.

However, the most surprising element of the storyline in Johns' situation was that it was reportedly executed by prisoners at Lee Correctional Institution, a high-security prison located in South Carolina approximately 150 miles east of Greenville. Moreover, the inmates managed to accomplish this using smartphones - prohibited gadgets that were supposed to be prevented by the prison's $1.7 million "managed access system."

Prison authorities, along with certain federal organizations, are considering acquiring a more advanced and possibly pricier technology to prevent illegal cellular and Wi-Fi communication from contraband phones in correctional facilities: a signal blocker device capable of blocking all calls within its designated area.

Bryan P. Stirling, the director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, has emphasized that inmates may be physically incarcerated, but they still have digital freedom.

However, certain individuals with expertise caution against the use of jamming technology, as demonstrated by the recent testing conducted by the federal Bureau of Prisons in a South Carolina correctional facility. They argue that such technology may jeopardize public safety by disrupting emergency 911 calls and other cellphone services in close proximity. In the case of rural prisons, the worry extends to drivers on local roads and highways. Furthermore, these experts assert that the effectiveness of this technology is highly doubtful.

Jamming all calls, even to 911

The utilization of cellphone jammers, a technology that has long been opposed by the communications industry, has been proposed by corrections officials and federal agencies to address the issues at hand. These problems highlight the need for such measures, as they aim to prevent all calls, including those made from phones owned by staff or emergency workers.

Managed access systems enable individuals to place calls only if their numbers are pre-approved, whereas jammers have the capability to disrupt all frequencies, including data and Wi-Fi, without discrimination. This poses a significant challenge for the country's 911 phone system, as it operates on a frequency similar to that of commercial carriers.

Solely federal agencies have the legal authority to utilize jammers, under specific conditions related to national security. However, with the approval of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who was appointed by President Trump in 2017, and the U.S. Department of Justice, the use of jammers in prisons may be permitted.

During the month of September, announcements were made by the department and state officials regarding a test conducted at South Carolina's Broad River Correctional Institution. The test revealed that a micro-jammer had the capability to block calls within a cell block, while still permitting "legitimate calls" just one foot outside the walls.

However, the technical report conducted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration presented a different perspective. It highlighted that the test solely focused on one out of the 14 jammers necessary to obstruct calls in half of the cellblock. Additionally, the report indicated that jamming was detected at a minimum distance of 65 feet, although the extent of its impact on regular cell-phone service remained uncertain.

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