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Lawsuits Filed, Renewed Push to Block Cell Phones After Deadly South Carolina Prison Riot

by Steve Horn

In the two months following an April 15, 2018 riot at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, South Carolina that left seven prisoners dead and at least 22 injured, the state’s Department of Corrections (DOC) has renewed its push to get the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to approve jamming contraband cell phones in prisons and jails. Additionally, several prisoners who were wounded during the riot have filed lawsuits alleging that staff at the facility failed to protect them from foreseeable violence.

The incident at Lee Correctional was the deadliest prison uprising in the U.S. in a quarter century. [See: PLN, May 2018, p.12]. Bryan P. Stirling, director of the South Carolina DOC, has maintained that the incident was caused and orchestrated by prisoners over contraband cell phones – a position shared by Governor Henry McMaster.

But others say corrupt prison guards who sold cell phones to prisoners for upwards of $1,500 each are to blame. In a lawsuit filed against the South Carolina DOC in June 2018, Javon Rivers, who was incarcerated at Lee at the time of the disturbance, claims that “guards were allowed to assist inmates with illegal activities in exchange for payment, including the smuggling of contraband and turning a blind eye to attacks on other inmates.” A turf war over the contraband smuggling ensued, Rivers said in his complaint, and during the riot he was “stabbed twice with a knife and was also chopped with a homemade axe.”

Ironically, were it not for a prisoner with a contraband cell phone who took photos of the aftermath of the lethal incident and sent them to Prison Legal News and other media outlets, the broader public may have never known the extent of the riot or what it looked like. Regardless, the South Carolina DOC has continued its push to get the FCC to jam cell phone signals at correctional facilities.

Prison Legal News spoke with state-level policymakers, the FCC and stakeholders involved in the issue, including DOC director Stirling, to learn more about the policy changes and regulatory discussions that have taken place in the aftermath of the riot.

FCC Task Force

On April 30, 2018, Stirling and several other directors of state departments of corrections met in Washington, D.C. with officials representing companies such as AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile to discuss the future of the FCC’s regulatory landscape vis-à-vis the issue of contraband cell phones in prisons and jails.

That meeting was convened by the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA) and the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) – trade associations that represent the telecommunications industry and state-level prison directors, respectively. Together, ASCA and CTIA maintain an FCC Task Force focused on contraband cell phones, which has members representing nine state departments of corrections plus the federal Bureau of Prisons.

“We welcome the FCC’s continued focus on this problem and today’s task force meeting marked the beginning of an important partnership,” ASCA and CTIA said in a joint press statement after the meeting. “It’s clear there’s no easy answer, but ASCA and CTIA launched an initiative today to begin to identify and test solutions in the coming months for stamping out the use of contraband cell phones.”

Sources who attended the Washington, D.C. meeting, including a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Correction and a representative from the FCC, conveyed to Prison Legal News that a debate has emerged within the Task Force about what to do about illicit cell phones going forward. The debate centered around either the utilization of cell phone signal jamming technology – if allowed by the FCC – or boosting the installation of managed access systems (MAS) at correctional facilities. Under current federal law, jamming systems, unlike MAS, which blocks all unapproved cell signals, are not permitted.

Justin Cole, vice president of public affairs for CTIA, said the Task Force planned to meet again in mid-June 2018 in Arlington, Virginia, and that the wireless telecom industry opposes cell phone jamming. The FCC, Cole stated, will defer to members of the Task Force to come up with a workable technological solution. CTIA is against jamming technology because it believes it’s a “blunt tool” that could block not only contraband cell phone signals but also those of on-site staff and members of the local community who live near correctional facilities.

Neysa Taylor, Director of Communications for the Tennessee Department of Correction, also described to Prison Legal News what transpired at the April 30 FCC Task Force meeting. Tennessee DOC Commissioner Tony Parker serves as a member of the Task Force.

“This meeting was definitely a step forward, in that the CTIA has agreed to come to the table to work with correctional agencies in pursuit of a viable, lasting, and cost effective counter measure to inmates’ use of wireless communication devices in prisons,” Taylor said via email.

She also conveyed that in Tennessee, the DOC has begun an initiative called Honor the Oath. The anti-corruption initiative, which the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice have signed on to, focuses on prosecuting prison guards who sell cell phones, drugs and other illicit items to prisoners.

“Contraband is a national issue that affects prisons, jails and correctional institutions across the country. The introduction of contraband of any kind to any correctional environment poses a threat to the safety of both that institution and the general public,” the Tennessee DOC explains on its website portal for Honor the Oath. “It is for this reason TDOC has been working closely with our criminal justice partners and other correctional agencies around the country to combat the introduction of illegal items and prosecute those who attempt to do so.”

According to the Tennessee DOC’s website, two criminal indictments have been brought against guards for selling cell phones to state prisoners thus far in 2018, while another seven guards were prosecuted last year.

The proposed 2019 budget for the federal Bureau of Prisons includes a $2 million provision to work “with the Federal Communications Commission to address the issue of contraband cell phones and other devices,” according to the budget bill’s U.S House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations report.

“These devices are being used nationwide by inmates to plan attacks, promote the distribution of controlled substances and weapons, engage in gang activity, and intimidate victims, witnesses, and correctional staff,” the Committee’s report stated. The budget provision was introduced by Maryland U.S. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, who represents a state where a federal prison recently conducted a cell phone jamming test.

In a statement provided to Prison Legal News, FCC spokesman Neil Grace said that while the agency is only involved in the Task Force in an advisory capacity, it views cell phones as a “major threat to the safety of correctional facility employees, other inmates, and the public.”

“We are pleased that industry and corrections officials came together to agree on actionable steps to find a solution to the use of illegal cell phones in prisons, which is a major threat to the safety of correctional facility employees, other inmates, and the public,” he added. “The FCC has relentlessly pushed to identify new technology solutions to legally address this urgent problem, including convening the first working group meeting this year of state correctional agencies, public safety officials and the wireless industry.”

Cell Phone Blocking Pilot Program

Meanwhile, the South Carolina DOC has proceeded with its own cell phone blocking test at Lee Correctional.

In a phone interview with Prison Legal News, DOC Director Stirling said the facility has implemented a MAS pilot program, which had been in the works well prior to the April 15, 2018 riot, and will be used as a case study of sorts. He indicated he was skeptical of whether the system will work and is “still 100 percent for jamming,” as he thinks that is “the most effective means” of dealing with illicit cell phones, but said he is willing to give MAS technology a try, too.

“Honestly, we’re going to wait and see and test it ourselves. But as a director and someone in charge of spending tax dollars, I’m just not going to throw a bunch of money into something that doesn’t work,” Stirling stated. “And it hasn’t worked anywhere except for in what I think was a county jail and that was all one building, so we’ll see.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, better known for his opposition to net neutrality, visited Lee Correctional in April 2016 and participated in a hearing on contraband cell phones. [See: PLN, June 2016, p.32]. Thus, the push to block cell phone signals at South Carolina prisons is not a new one, which has made some skeptical that the renewed push for jamming technology following the Lee riot may be a red herring.

That was the argument made by Heather Thompson, a history professor at the University of Michigan and author of Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy, in an opinion piece published by The New York Times.

“Yes, it was a gang fight, prisoners tell me, but it was corrections officials who had decided to house rival gangs in the same dormitory, and it was the officials’ increasingly punitive policies that exacerbated tensions on the inside,” Thompson explained. “The fact that the rioting went on for seven hours, and that so many died and were injured – 22 were taken to the hospital – was, they say, in no small part because corrections officers were AWOL.”

Similarly, the prisoner who provided photos of the riot’s aftermath to Prison Legal News said the brutal uprising did not center around cell phones but rather a long-standing “beef” between rival gangs.

Director Stirling, for his part, seemed to agree that the problem goes beyond illicit cell phones. He said his department has initiated a multi-pronged approach, including bringing criminal charges against guards who sell contraband to prisoners.

“It’s 100 percent in all areas. I’m not talking about specific cases, but we’ve basically doubled the number of investigators that we have,” Stirling stated. “We’re seeing, you know, arrests during visitation of officers and other staff [due to contraband trafficking].”

On April 25, 2018, just 10 days after the deadly riot at Lee Correctional, the U.S. Department of Justice brought federal charges against 14 former DOC employees for “accepting bribes and bringing contraband into South Carolina prisons,” according to a press release. The contraband included cell phones.

“The message is very simple,” Jody Norris, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s South Carolina office, said at a press conference announcing the charges. “If you are in a position of public trust and breaking the law, you can stop or you can be the one behind bars.”

“Forced to Bleed and Suffer”

In their lawsuits against the South Carolina DOC, filed in the Court of Common Pleas in Lee County, prisoners have argued that prison officials and guards should have foreseen that a riot would occur at Lee Correctional.

“Lee Correctional Institution failed to provide the adequate and/or specific number of properly trained security guards at numerous locations throughout the facility,” state the complaints filed by prisoners Robert S. Jackson and Jadarius K. Roberts. “Further, the administrators, employees and correctional staff of Lee Correctional Institution knew or should have known that their failure to provide adequate security measures would result in unsafe conditions for the inmate population.”

Roberts and Jackson allege gross negligence on the part of the DOC. One anonymous source, who is apparently incarcerated at Lee Correctional, went even further than the claims in the civil complaints, writing in an April 16, 2018 tweet that “For seven hours prison staff sat back and watched brothers fighting for thier (sic) lives and they did nothing but laugh seven hours.”

Jackson and Roberts said they suffered serious wounds and had to wait 45 minutes to get help from guards at Lee Correctional, while another prisoner who filed suit in May 2018, Reakwon Watson, alleged in his complaint that he “was forced to bleed and suffer for several hours before correctional staff finally came onto the wing” to give him medical attention.

Director Stirling said the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the DOC are conducting a criminal investigation into the riot. Prison officials have also outsourced a policies and procedures audit to the ASCA; the audit is being overseen by Brad Livingston, former head of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, and could lead to policy changes in South Carolina prisons. No timeline is in place as to how long the investigation and audit will take.

“The investigation is going to be done when it’s done. I mean, you never know where a lead’s going to take you or what have you. Nobody would ever put a timeline on an investigation. You just don’t know,” said Stirling. “You don’t know when you’ve exhausted all of your investigative resources. Depending on what the investigation entails, everything will be published once it’s done.”

While the post-riot inquiries unfold, the lawsuits filed by prisoners injured during the disturbance remain pending. When all is said and done, the South Carolina DOC may eventually be held accountable in civil court for what happened on that fateful day in April; that will not, however, comfort the families of the seven prisoners who were killed. 


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