COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — An ex-South Carolina prison guard who was nearly killed in a hit orchestrated by an inmate using an illegal cellphone is traveling to Washington this week, asking federal authorities for help to make sure nothing like it happens again.
On Thursday, former corrections officer Robert Johnson is scheduled to testify before the Federal Communications Commission in a hearing about preventing inmate access to cellphones.
Earlier this month, in an article published online, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote that he and others will take public input before voting on “reforms to facilitate the use of radio-based technologies to detect and block the use of contraband phones” in prisons and jails.
Johnson has been outspoken on prison cellphones since 2010, when one of them nearly led to his death. The 15-year corrections veteran was working as an anti-contraband officer at Lee Correctional Institution, one of South Carolina’s most violent prisons, about 50 miles east of Columbia. Early one morning as he prepared to leave for work, Johnson was shot six times in the chest and stomach.
“I heard a yell, ‘Police!'” Johnson, who believed the intruder may have been impersonating an officer, told The Associated Press months after the shooting. “I came out the bathroom door, and there was this person there. I really don’t remember the rest. From the trauma, my mind just went blank.”
Authorities said the hit on Johnson was planned by an inmate at the prison using an illegal cellphone to communicate with the shooter. It was believed to have been the first hit of its kind in the country. The shooter was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. Johnson got a concealed weapons permit and practices shooting, in case he needs to defend himself in the future.
The FCC controls the nation’s airwaves, and Johnson, Corrections Director Bryan Stirling and other officials including then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley have called on the agency to let the state jam cell signals at its prisons, rendering useless any cellphones possessed by inmates. The cellphone industry has strongly opposed the use of localized jamming out of concern it could set a precedent leading to wider gaps in their networks.
Previously, the FCC has said its hands are tied by a decades-old law that says the agency can grant permission to jam the public airwaves only to federal agencies, not state or local ones. Stirling told AP this week he’s accompanying Johnson to Washington to meet with members of Congress on ways they can address the issue.
Last year, Pai toured the prison where Johnson had worked, seeing up close the thousands of contraband cellphones authorities say they seize from the state’s inmates each year, whether smuggled inside, tossed over fences or even delivered by drone. At a field hearing later that day in Columbia, Haley and others beseeched Pai’s agency to help the state keep prison employees and the public safe from violence and other criminal activity that can come from inmates’ unfettered access to communication devices.
At the time, Pai called the status quo “not acceptable” and said he would renew a discussion about next steps.
“If the South Carolina Department of Corrections had been able to block cellphone signals, my ordeal would not have happened,” Johnson testified at that hearing. “Why are we allowing inmates to continue to hurt people?”