Justice News

Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams Delivers Remarks to the National Association of Attorneys General Summer Meeting
Portland, OR
United States
Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you for that kind introduction.  I appreciate the opportunity to participate in what I know is a very busy Summer Meeting schedule to discuss an important issue that affects all of us in this room—contraband cellphones in prisons.  And it is a special honor to sit down with you, Attorney General Kilmartin.  Like many of your fellow attorneys general, you have demonstrated a longstanding commitment to your community, first as an officer on patrol with the Pawtucket Police Department, then as a Captain and officer in charge of prosecutions, then as a Rhode Island state representative.  Thank you for your many years of devoted public service.

It was an honor when I was asked to serve in the Department of Justice.  I can imagine that I’m not alone in this room when I say it has been a privilege to go to work every day, side-by-side with my colleagues to fulfill a mission I very much believe in:  enforcing the law, preventing crime, and ensuring public safety.

I was sworn in as the Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy (or OLP) almost a year ago.  OLP is often described as the think tank for the Department.  Unlike most of the other divisions at the Department of Justice that oversee cases or prosecute particular crimes, OLP’s mission is to advise the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General on how we can make things better.  That can be anything from human trafficking to victim assistance to cyber policy to forensic science.  When I arrived, one of the first issues that my office tackled was contraband cellphones in prisons.

The threat from contraband cellphones in prisons is real.  A contraband cellphone in the hands of an inmate poses a danger to correctional officers, law enforcement officials, and the general public.  That’s why Congress in 2010 passed a law prohibiting federal inmates from using or possessing a cellphone or wireless device in prison.  With a cellphone, inmates are able to continue their criminal activities from behind bars.  Cellphones have been used to direct gang activity, run criminal enterprises, distribute child pornography, facilitate the commission of violent crimes, and call out “hits” on innocent witnesses and prosecutors and their families—all while an inmate is incarcerated.  Contraband cellphones thus not only present a threat to public safety, but also defeat a critical purpose of imprisonment—preventing offenders from committing crime.  

Reducing violent crime is a priority for the Attorney General, and the Department’s work to stop the use of contraband cellphones in prisons is a key part of that effort.  The Attorney General has also made it clear that the Department of Justice supports law enforcement.  The men and women who serve in your state’s local police departments, sheriffs’ offices, highway patrols, correctional institutions, and other local law enforcement offices put their lives on the line for us every day—just like you did, Attorney General Kilmartin, for 24 years.  You and the other men and women in law enforcement deserve our thanks and, even more than that, you deserve our commitment to do everything the Department can do to help keep you and your families safe.  Taking cellphones out of the hands of dangerous criminals behind bars is one thing we can and should do.

Contraband cellphones make the already dangerous jobs of law enforcement and corrections officers even more dangerous.  One 15-year corrections veteran, Captain Robert Johnson of South Carolina, almost died because he was too good at his job.  Captain Johnson had earned a reputation for his ability to ferret out contraband, including illegal cellphones and drugs smuggled into the South Carolina corrections institution where he worked.   On March 5, 2010, as Captain Johnson was preparing for work, a gunman broke into his home and shot him six times in the chest while his wife watched.  An inmate seeking revenge had used a contraband cellphone to order the hit on Captain Johnson’s life.   After over a dozen surgeries and months in the hospital, Captain Johnson survived—though he still has trouble breathing and now walks with a cane.   Today, Captain Johnson is an outspoken advocate for efforts to disable contraband cellphones in prisons.  

We ask so much of our law enforcement and corrections officers.  Their jobs are hard enough, and yet—because of contraband cellphones in prisons—they have to worry not only about their own safety, but also the safety of their loved ones at home.  We cannot let this continue.

And unfortunately, the problem of contraband cellphones in prisons is just as much of a problem today as it was in 2010—if not more so.  Earlier this month, a twice-convicted child molester in Georgia pled guilty to smuggling a cellphone into state prison, which he then used to send a 13-year-old girl naked pictures.

As you may have heard, sometimes people in Washington, D.C. disagree.  But there are issues we can all agree on—like keeping contraband cellphones out of the hands of criminals behind bars.  It is an honor to speak to you about this important issue.  As Captain Johnson’s story and the recent case in Georgia both illustrate, state and local prisons, where the majority of our country’s inmates are housed, face a very real and growing threat from contraband cellphones. 

Unfortunately, as I’m sure we’ll discuss in more detail later this morning, there are technological and legal hurdles that hinder efforts to disable contraband cellphones in correctional facilities.  The Department of Justice would like to work with you in overcoming these obstacles.  We need to work together to determine not only what technologies can stop the harm from contraband cellphones in prisons in the most cost-effective manner, but also which technologies can do so without interfering with legitimate users in the surrounding area.  There is no one-size-fits-all answer that will work for every institution; thus, we need to join forces to ensure every state has the legal authority and opportunity to test and determine what solution works best for your correctional facilities—which technologies will help keep your law enforcement, your correctional officers, and your citizens safe. 

I look forward to our discussion.  Thank you.

Updated June 22, 2018