Federal officials took a step Thursday toward increasing safety in prisons by making it easier to find and seize cellphones obtained illegally by inmates.
The Federal Communications Commission in Washington 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 U.S.
The vote doesn't make it legal to jam cellphone signals in prison, which corrections directors across the country say is what they need to shut down inmate cellphone use, once and for all.
But commissioners including Chairman Ajit Pai said the step was one that could hopefully begin to combat the phones that officials say are the No. 1 safety issue behind bars.
The vote came after powerful testimony from Robert Johnson, a former South Carolina corrections officer who was nearly killed in a shooting that authorities said was the first in the country orchestrated by an inmate using an illegal cellphone inside prison.
"I bled out three times," Johnson recalled, telling commissioners how he was shot six times at his home early one morning in March 2010. "My doctor said I should be dead. ... Last Wednesday, I had surgery Number 24, but who's counting?"
At the time, Johnson was the lead officer tasked with keeping contraband items like tobacco, weapons and cellphones out of Lee Correctional Institution, a prison 50 miles east of Columbia that houses some of the state's most dangerous criminals. The items are smuggled inside, tossed over fences or even delivered by drone.
Since then, Johnson has become an advocate on the issue, saying prisons need to be able to jam cell signals, but that would require congressional changes to a decades-old communications law.
Previously, the FCC has said its hands are tied by a law that says the agency can grant permission to jam the public airwaves only to federal agencies, not state or local ones. South Carolina Corrections Director Bryan Stirling accompanied Johnson to Thursday's hearing, telling The Associated Press this week the pair would meet with members of Congress on ways they can address the issue.
The cellphone industry has been vocal in its opposition to the notion of jamming, arguing that legitimate cellphone users near prisons could be affected if jammers were in use. Officials with wireless trade group CTIA did not immediately respond to email message seeking reaction to Thursday's ruling.
Pai came to South Carolina last year to see the issue up close, touring the prison where Johnson worked and holding a field hearing at which the former office testified. On Thursday, Pai said the approval of reforms to streamline the process so prisons can more easily begin using technology to find contraband cellphones was his way of making good on a promise to Johnson to take the issue seriously and do what he could to find a solution.
"For far too long, the FCC did not move forward," Pai said. "I said then that it's time for the FCC to take action. ... We are finally doing something."