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Telecomm expert lists ways to block cell phone signals inside prisons

This shows the Lee Correctional Institution on Monday, April 16, 2018, in Bishopville, S.C. Multiple inmates were killed and others seriously injured amid fighting between prisoners inside the maximum security prison in South Carolina. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

Contraband cell phones and gang activity are blamed for the riots at Lee Correctional this weekend.

But who is to blame for cell phones getting into the prison systems in the first place?

SCDOC Director Bryan Stirling heads to Washington in 11 days. He'll be meeting with cell phone trade officials. We investigated the low and high tech that will be the focus of upcoming conversations.

Director Bryan Stirling says, “I like jamming, it shuts the door completely."

That's Director Stirling's low-tech solution.

He says just shut down all cell phone activity on prison grounds and you've solved the problem.

But that's not how the cell phone industry sees it.

Telecommunications expert Ben Levitan says a blanket "jam" could also block law enforcement officers from communicating with each other in emergencies.

His low-tech solution?

It's a shielding technology made by companies like Safe Living Technologies, Inc.

He says, “I’ve worked in many offices where they simply put up a transparent screen on the windows of the office building because they don’t want calls outside the office building, and that effectively stops any cell phone use.”

High-tech solutions are possibilities, too.

“We can create a geo fence around a prison and if someone attempts to make a call, about a hundred things happen,” Levitan says.

A geo fence creates a virtual perimeter, allowing things like an alert to be sent to law enforcement when a cell phone enters the prison.

Once alerted, the technology is there to track the phone, but it's controversial.

It's a cell tower 'simulator' called Stingray by the Harris Corporation.

Privacy advocates argue it's an illegal search and seizure device.

But does that apply to prisoners?

Levitan says South Carolina already owns one of these $500,000 devices.

But who will pay for these services? Levitan says emergency funds may be an option.

The South Carolina Department of Corrections has asked for a formal review of the riot at Lee Correctional this weekend. Five South Carolina lawmakers have requested to go inside the prison and see conditions for themselves.

ABC News4 has also put in a request to visit Lee Correctional.

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