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Robert Johnson

South Carolina authorities who have helped push for permission to block cell phone signals inside prisons say an officer in charge of keeping out contraband was nearly killed at his home — in an attack planned with a smuggled phone.

Corrections Department Capt. Robert Johnson was getting ready to go to work at Lee Correctional Institution about 50 miles east of Columbia one day last March. Around 5:30 a.m., a man broke down the front door of Johnson’s mobile home, shooting the 15-year prison veteran six times in the chest and stomach.

“I heard a yell, ‘Police!'” said Johnson, 57, who believes the intruder may have been impersonating an officer. “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.”

Six months into his recovery, Johnson and his bosses want Congress to change a 1934 law that says the Federal Communications Commission can grant permission to jam the public airwaves only to federal agencies, not state or local ones.

The cell phone industry says the jamming methods some states want can interfere with emergency communications and legitimate cell phone use in the area. They advocate other, potentially more expensive technology that they say can be more precise but has seen only limited use.

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While authorities say Johnson is the first corrections officer in the U.S. harmed by a hit ordered from inmate’s cell phone, other people have been targets. In 2005, a New Jersey inmate serving time for shooting at two police officers used a smuggled phone to order a fatal attack on his girlfriend, who had given authorities information leading to his arrest.

Two years later, a drug dealer in Baltimore’s city jail used a cell phone to successfully plan the killing of a witness who had identified him as the gunman in a previous killing. And in 2008, a Texas death row inmate used a cell phone to threaten the life of a state senator.


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