The Federal Communications Commission is giving state corrections departments more authority to combat contraband cell phones, which Oklahoma prisoners often use to coordinate gang attacks and other illicit activity.

In an 88-page report released Tuesday, the regulatory agency said it plans to work with prison officials to deploy contraband tracking systems that can detect unauthorized cell signals and record the device’s International Mobile Equipment Identity number. Wireless service providers will be required to disconnect known contraband phones at the request of corrections officials.

“Despite efforts to identify and confiscate contraband phones, with everything from cell searches to phone-sniffing dogs, these devices still make their way in,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a prepared statement. “The action we take today is designed to help them stop.”

The FCC stopped short of allowing network jamming, a technology many prison directors have endorsed but the wireless industry opposes because it could disrupt service for legitimate users. However, Rosenworcel said the agency will continue to seek input from corrections officials and work toward a solution.

Brought in by visitors, corrupt staff and even drones, contraband cell phones are abundant in Oklahoma prisons. In 2016 the state corrections department seized 9,766 of the devices, about one for every 2.8 prisoners.

In September 2019 incarcerated gang members used cell phones to coordinate fights at six state prisons. Thirty-six people were injured, and one inmate was killed.

The fights took place at Northeast Oklahoma Correctional Center in Vinita; Lawton Correctional Facility; North Fork Correctional Center in Sayre; Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy; Mack Alford Correctional Center in Stringtown; and William S. Key Correctional Center in Fort Supply.

Nine of the injured inmates were at Key. Five were treated at a hospital, while the other four were treated at the prison.

ODOC put every state prison on lockdown after the fights.

The violence prompted Gov. Kevin Stitt to issue an executive order directing Oklahoma Department of Corrections to research and implement technology designed to eliminate contraband cell phones.

State corrections officials planned to test cell phone detection bracelets at Lexington Assessment and Reception Center last fall, but the pilot program was postponed indefinitely. In October, Oklahoma Watch reported many prisoners feared gang retaliation if they agreed to wear a bracelet.

Last year Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded a $420,000 grant to Oklahoma Department of Corrections to reduce contraband cell phone use at two prisons with a high number of seizures, North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre and Mack Alford Correctional Center in Stringtown. Applicants were encouraged to explore all options available under FCC regulations.

Though the updated federal guidelines should give prison officials more power in their fight against contraband phones, Rosenworcal warned that the technology isn’t a catch-all solution.

“The incentive to bring these devices into prisons and jails will not simply go away with better contraband interdiction systems in place,” she said. “These underlying problems need to be addressed.”

Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) corporation whose mission is to produce in-depth and investigative journalism on public-policy and quality-of-life issues facing the state.

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