WASHINGTON — A sex offender behind bars in Tennessee used a cellphone smuggled into prison to swap child pornography and invite a pedophile to help him rape his own daughter.
A gang member incarcerated in North Carolina used a cellphone to call in a “hit” on the prosecutor’s father, who was then kidnapped and assaulted by the inmate’s accomplices.
A growing number of crimes committed by inmates using contraband cellphones has sparked a bipartisan movement in Congress to stem the illegal flow of the devices into the nation’s jails and prisons.
“It’s a real problem, and it’s a growing problem,” said Rep. David Kustoff, the Tennessee Republican who is leading the campaign.
Contraband cellphones “are often used by inmates to coordinate criminal activity and pose a serious threat to the safety of correctional officers and staff and even the general public,” said Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Ohio.
Kustoff, a former federal prosecutor, recently organized a letter signed by 52 House members and senators – Republicans and Democrats – calling on the Federal Communications Commission to set up a meeting with corrections officials, major cellular providers and the FBI to look for ways to effectively block, or hamper, the use of contraband cellphones by inmates.
In response, FCC Chairman Ajit V. Pai promised to facilitate the meeting within 120 days.
“I share your concerns about the proliferation of contraband wireless devices in prisons and the potentially devastating implications for public safety,” Pai wrote in an Oct. 24 letter to Kustoff.
The federal Bureau of Prisons confiscated 5,116 cellphones from its facilities in 2016. Based on data available for the first six months of this year, the agency projects that the number of confiscations will jump by 28 percent in 2017.
The problem “is significantly worse in state and local correctional facilities,” Assistant Attorney General Beth A. Williams wrote on Aug. 28 in a letter to FCC Secretary Marlene Dortch.
Most, if not all, corrections systems bar prisoners from using cellphones, but inmates have had no trouble getting their hands on the sought-after devices.
In Tennessee, for example, it’s illegal to bring a cellphone into a prison, but it’s not illegal for an inmate to be in possession of one of the devices.
The Tennessee Department of Correction seized more than 2,000 cellphones last year, “yet there is no ability to prosecute the inmate for mere possession in those cases,” said Michael Dunavant, U.S. attorney for the Memphis-based Western District of Tennessee. “This deficiency just emboldens and encourages further introduction, possession and use by inmates and continues to present a significant public safety threat.”
In one case, Christopher David Grippe of Wartburg, Tenn., was already serving time in the Morgan County Regional Correctional Facility just outside of Knoxville for sexual exploitation of a minor when he was caught last year using a cellphone smuggled into the facility to swap photographs and videos of children being raped. A forensic search revealed that Grippe also had used the phone to engage in internet conversations with a pedophile.
Grippe pleaded guilty and was sentenced last July to 280 months in prison on top of the eight-year sentence he already was serving.
Most inmates use contraband cellphones not for illegal activity but to call their families or friends, said David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project.
Sometimes, the phones are thrown over the prison fence by relatives or are even flown in by drones. Many times, Fathi said, the suppliers are prison staff, particularly low-paid guards who sneak in the contraband to help supplement their income.
While prisons have a legitimate security interest in keeping the phones out, they also have helped feed the demand for the illegal devices by making it extremely expensive for inmates to call their relatives on legitimate phones inside the prison, Fathi said.
Fathi said the calls are expensive because prisons receive a portion of the revenue. “A short phone call could be $10 or $15, which is an enormous amount of money for prisoners and their families who come from the very poorest sectors of society,” he said.
The solution favored by many corrections officials for dealing with contraband cellphones is jamming signals in prisons. But under law, federal agencies can grant permission to jam public airwaves only to other federal agencies, not state or local ones. Besides, technology companies say jamming is not the answer because it could potentially impact cellphone users outside the prison grounds, especially in urban areas.
Other options under review include experimental “managed access” systems – already in use in Mississippi, Maryland, South Carolina and Puerto Rico – that allow only authorized calls to go through or low-level beacon technology that would alert prison guards when an unauthorized cellphone is activated within the facility and then shut down the device, rendering it useless.
Both systems are costly and, in the case of the beacon technology, would require carriers to agree to download software onto their phones. Even then, older phones that aren’t equipped with the software would go undetected.
Kustoff and other lawmakers say they would prefer cellular providers and corrections officials take “a collaborative approach” to address the problem instead of Congress mandating a solution.
“Chairman Pai and the FCC are well-equipped to identify effective solutions to this problem,” said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.
CTIA, a Washington-based trade association that represents the wireless industry, said solutions will require action by all stakeholders.
Kustoff said he senses that most jails and prisons would willingly install the necessary technology to stop prisoners from using cellphones.
“But if there needs to be some legislative solution, then I’m going to work on leading that solution,” said Kustoff, who became involved in the issue at the request of prosecutors and lawmakers in his state.
“There is absolutely no good emanating from a prisoner in Tennessee or any other prisoner having possession of a cellphone,” he said.