- Associated Press - Thursday, January 17, 2019

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina officials are hoping to combat the dangers of illegal cellphones behind bars by giving inmates a different technological device to communicate with family, obtain education and even purchase access to approved entertainment services.

Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told The Associated Press on Thursday that he’s unveiling a program to provide tablet computers to inmates. With the devices, Stirling said, inmates will be able to make calls home at a cheaper rate than pre-existing traditional calling programs. They’ll also have access to pre-loaded educational materials, as well as pre-approved streaming movie and music services via a secure Wi-Fi network.

Stirling said he hopes the devices will make cellphones - illegal for inmates to have but still smuggled into the state’s institutions by the thousands - less attractive to inmates. For years, Stirling and his predecessors have spoken out about the dangers of cellphones, in large part due to the unfettered communication they allow both with the outside world and others behind bars. He has referred to the devices as the primary security threat in his prisons and has made eradicating them a top priority.

“This will go directly to that cellphone problem,” Stirling told AP. “This is going to make our prisons safer.”

In April 2018, seven inmates died during a night of rioting at Lee Correctional Institution, one of the state’s maximum-security prisons. Officials have said that some of the dispute was over contraband, including illegal cellphones, which inmates likely used for communications during the insurrection. Former Corrections officer Robert Johnson was nearly killed in 2010 in a hit orchestrated by an inmate using a cellphone.

Stirling has advocated jamming, which renders cell signals useless. But a decades-old law says federal officials can grant permission to jam the public airwaves only to federal agencies, not state or local agencies. Telecommunications companies are opposed, saying jamming cell signals could set a bad precedent and interfere with legal cell users nearby. For now, he’s stepped up searches, scans and other anti-cellphone measures, including technology that blocks certain cell signals.

Asked Thursday about any potential pitfalls of the new devices, Stirling said the tablets - which will be heavily restricted, monitored and mined for data by Corrections Department analysts - don’t allow inmates to communicate in any way with each other. Under a contract signed with the device provider, if it turns out that an inmate somehow is able to download material onto the tablet or hack the system, the provider is subject to up to $2 million in fines.

Similar programs have already been used in other states, including Georgia and Pennsylvania. In Ohio, former prisons chief Gary Mohr told AP he was extremely pleased with tablets, which he said helped cut down on the number of inmates returning to prison both because they allowed inmates to stay in closer touch with support networks and also develop more skills useful outside of prison.

“I see these tablets doing two things: enhancing the programming element that can be directly attributed to reducing recidivism and assisting in the security of our prison by allowing greater access to the families,” he said. “The more we can hook inmates up with their families and keep that communication going, that’s going to be better when they get out.”

In addition to calling - at 5.5 cents a minute, cheaper than the up to 10-cents-a-minute traditional calling plans - Stirling said the devices will have pre-loaded educational materials, as well as access to pre-approved streaming movie and music services via a secure Wi-Fi network. The state isn’t paying anything for the devices. Stirling said they will be funded via subscription plans purchased by inmates.

Piloting the program at several prisons before expanding it systemwide, Stirling said the tablets will help with institutional security far past his concerns about cellphones. Simply put, they give idle inmates something to do and occupy time that could be spent on misdeeds.

“People just can’t sit around and do nothing all day,” Stirling said. “This is something that’s going to make it safer for our staff and our officers.”

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Meg Kinnard can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.

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