Marshall Fisher, state Corrections commissioner

Lawmakers are considering proposals to impose harsher penalties for inmates and correctional officers caught with cell phones and other contraband behind prison walls.

State law says that anyone found with prison contraband faces a minimum of three years and a maximum of 15 years in prison along with a $25,000 fine.

Wednesday, the House Corrections Committee approved a measure that would double those penalties. Cell phone chargers and SIM cards would also be included in the list of contraband.

Marshall Fisher, commissioner of the state Department of Corrections, said the agency possesses cell-phone jamming technology, but that he’s unhappy with its performance. Fisher said he has received reports of prisoners with active Facebook profiles and communicating with victims.

“It works part of the time, but it’s not 100 percent,” Fisher said of the cell phone jammers.

Fisher, along with other state prison leaders, have asked the Federal Communication Commission for help with curbing the problem. In a letter to the FCC, Mississippi prison officials cited a Mississippi Today story noting that more than 9 million texts and attempted transmissions have been intercepted from inmate cell phones at two state prisons in the past five years.

Corrections officials cited a federal conspiracy case trial that revealed Mississippi prison inmates orchestrated murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, assault, money laundering, drug distribution and firearms trafficking all via illegal cell phones.

Rep. Charles Young, D-Meridian, said although the prison cell phone issue is worrisome, he doesn’t believe the state should always impose the maximum.

“We need the deterrent in place to at least put something on the minds of the inmates and everyone who is involved with the conspiracy,” Young said.

The bill passed with two no votes.

Also Tuesday, the House debated a bill that would provide for enhanced penalties for selling, bartering or exchanging drugs near rehabilitation facilities or within jails and prisons. Debate on the bill was tabled after a parliamentary inquiry and could resume at a later time.

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Ryan L. Nave, a native of University City, Mo., served as Mississippi Today's editor-in-chief from May 2018 until April 2020. Ryan began his career with Mississippi Today February 2016 as an original member of the editorial team. He became news editor August 2016. Ryan has a bachelor’s in political science from the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked for Illinois Times and served as news editor for the Jackson Free Press.