Sheriff calls for legislation to jam cell signals
Laurens County Sheriff Don Reynolds said Friday that Michelle Marie Dodge might very well still be alive if not for contraband cell phones inside prison walls.
Dodge, 27, was the victim of an execution-style murder that investigators say was a hit that came from James Robert Peterson, an inmate at Kirkland Correctional Institute in Columbia. Peterson is serving a 30-year sentence for a murder he committed in 2005.
“This was only accomplished by the gangs having access to him via the telephone,” Reynolds said during a press conference Friday. “This tragedy brings to light the seriousness of this issue.”
Despite a federal conviction of in 2018 for running a drug operation that spanned from South Carolina to California from the Lee Correctional facility, Peterson continued to allegedly operate a criminal enterprise large enough to involve eight people arrested this past week in connection with Dodge’s murder.
Peterson received an additional 30 years in prison following the federal court convictions for running a drug and money laundering operation. The conviction came after a year-long sting operation conducted by the Organized Crime Drug Task Force.
As charges were filed against Peterson, Assistant U.S. Attorney Lance Crick also filed indictments against 14 former South Carolina Department of Corrections employees accused of accepting bribes to smuggle in contraband for inmates, including cellphones.
On July 1, the Department of Corrections Police Services Division also released arrest warrants for former corrections officer Dalton Damien Manning, a former guard at Kirkland, charging him with attempting to introduce contraband into the prison and misconduct in office.
Reynolds said an archaic federal law from 1934 is stopping today’s law enforcement officials from jamming cellphone signals in state prisons, making them useless. Cell signals can legally be jammed in federal prisons but have not been as of yet, according to reports.
State Corrections Director Bryan Stirling is pushing for the ability to jam cellphone signals in state prisons. He testified at a 2017 FCC hearing in Washington, D.C. with former corrections officer Robert Johnson, who was shot and nearly killed after a hit on him was orchestrated from prison by an inmate using an illegal phone.
“Common sense would tell us that if the cellphones will not work, they’ll be of no use to the inmates,” Reynolds said. “But unfortunately, that solution is not settled.”
Bills that would allow states to jam cellphone signals at state prisons – the Cell Phone Jamming Reform Act – have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate.
Opponents of the bills say they are concerned that the jammed signals might stop legal calls outside the prison.
They also say some prison policies that inflate the prices of landlines at the prison create a market for contraband cellphones.
“Prisons themselves help create the demand for contraband by making it very difficult and expensive for prisoners to call their loved ones through legitimate channels,” said David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project in an interview with the Pew Trusts and a story published by govtrackinsider.com.
Fathi said landline calls from prisons can cost as much as $56 to four minutes and making those calls more affordable would reduce the need for contraband phones.
But Patterson was allegedly not as interested in calling loved ones as in conducting criminal activity via cellphone from behind bars.
Reynolds said the “drug trade” was the common thread between Dodge and the eight people charged with her kidnapping and murder.
According to online SCDOC records, Peterson has been disciplined 11 times for attempting or possession a contraband cellphone while in prison. He has also been disciplined twice more for attempting or setting up an account on a social networking site.
Each offense was met with losses of privileges and disciplinary detention.
Now, with a second murder charge and federal time for drugs, there is reason to believe that Peterson will be incarcerated until his death, especially if convicted of murder again.
But Reynolds said he may keep attempting to do the same thing until cellphones are taken out of his cell for good through signal jamming.
“He’s serving a 30-year sentence, so what does he have to lose?,” Reynolds said.