Lawmakers calling on FCC to stop prisoners from obtaining cell phones

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(WIVB) — Lawmakers want the FCC Chairman to allow prisons to jam mobile phone signals.

They say inmates use the phones to direct violent crimes and gang activity while in prison, but most prison rights advocates say most inmates use phones to talk to loved ones, not wreak havoc.

“It’s a massive public safety threat,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says.

Pai says that every year, thousands of cell phones are smuggled into prisons in some of the most bizarre ways.

“We heard a case in Georgia about a dead cat being used to be thrown over the fence, drones are now being used,” Pai said.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that in 2016, more than 5,000 cell phones were confiscated in federal prisons.

“That makes you wonder how many haven’t they caught,” Pai said.

Pai says inmates are using smartphones to do things like scam the public, order murders and plan escapes.

“It seems like we are hearing about these terrible stories about these contraband cellphones being used to break some folks out of prison, or to threaten or even to kill witnesses on the outside,” Pai said.

Lawmakers wrote a letter to the FCC, asking Chairman Pai to come up with a solution to stop inmates from getting a hold of cell phones. Lawmakers are calling it an issue of critical importance.

David Fathi, the prison project director with the American Civil Liberties Union, says “Yes, some prisoners use them to commit crimes, to intimidate witnesses, but a lot of prisoners use them just to call their loved ones.”

Fathi says calls from a jailhouse landline can cost up to $56 for four minutes.

“It is enormously expensive,” he said.

Fathi said the solution is lowering the cost of prison calls, so inmates don’t have to resort to sneaking in cell phones, but Pai says once the phones are inside the prison, he wants to block the signal so inmates can’t make calls.

“The time has come for all stakeholders to sit at the table and try and hash out real solutions,” Pai said.

Pai will meet with wireless carriers and representatives of correctional facilities across the country on Wednesday.

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