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Hearing Weighs Pros and Cons of Cell Phone Jamming Inside Prisons

By Matthew Harwood

Advocates for allowing state prisons to jam cell phone signals battled with critics at a Senate committee hearing on how to deal with the problem of inmates using contraband cellphones to illegally communicate with the outside world.

A new bill circulating through Congress would allow prisons to use cell phone jamming technology to block illicit cell phone traffic from inside prisons. Sponsored by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX), the bill would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to allow state prisons to petition the Federal Communications Commission to use cell phone jamming equipment to block cell phone signals inside their buildings. The Communications Act currently prohibits any interference with federal airwaves.

"We need to fight technology with technology," testified Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Prisons across the country have seen an epidemic of contraband cell phones being smuggled inside their gates.

California confiscated 2,800 cell phones throughout its prison system in 2008, doubling the previous year. Texas prison officials collected 678 cell phones from prisoners between August 2007 and September 2008, up almost 29 percent over the previous year, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

"Phones can be brought into prisons in a variety of ways," Maynard said . "They are smuggled on or within an inmate's body, by staff, by visitors, tossed over the fences or walls, concealed within deliveries or shipments of food and supplies, or through contractors."

The phones have been used to commit various crimes, including murder, credit card fraud, and prison escape. In one incident last year, Texas death row inmate Richard Tabler used a smuggled cell phone to call Texas State Senator John Whitmire. Tabler told the state senator that the senator had two daughters, where they lived, plus other details.

"Frankly," Whitmire told members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, "that scared the hell out of me and convinced me that an inmate having this ability represented a major public safety issue."

Texas law enforcement officers eventually arrested Tabler's mother for smuggling him the phone. Afterwards, the Texas Office of the Inspector General received a letter from Tabler threatening to have Whitmire murdered in retaliation for his mother's arrest.

But critics say using cell phone jamming technology is too dangerous, potentially blocking 911 calls and jamming public safety networks in the surrounding area. .

"We do not support cell jamming until such time that the vendors and users of this technology can prove that there will be no negative impact on public safety networks and access to 911 by legitimate users and that all other viable alternatives have failed," testified Richard A. Mirgon, president-elect of the nonprofit  Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International.

In November 2008, however,the Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville, South Carolina, demonstrated that cell phone jamming technology could block cell phone signals within a determined area without affecting outside areas. (For more on this, see "Prisons Struggle to Keep Out Contraband Cell Phones," in the February 2009 print issue of Security Management.)

Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA—The Wireless Association and an opponent of cell phone jamming, argued that safer alternatives exist that would not risk interference with cell phone and public safety airwaves: cell detection systems and managed access.

Cell detection systems allow prisons to "detect, locate, and confiscate" contraband phones. But they also give prison officials options that cell jamming does not.

"Once illicit devices have been detected," he explained, "prison officials and law enforcement may decide to leave them in place and arrange to monitor them in accordance with the wiretap statutes."

Another alternative is managed access, which would allow prisons to block any uncleared cell phone use on commercial wireless networks.

"Because no jamming transmission occurs, there is no interference to other users," Largent said.

Furthermore, Largent argued that the reason contraband cell phones are a problem inside prisons in the first place is because of compromised prison guards. Smuggling cell phones is big business, which is one reason inmates can corrupt guards into smuggling the devices inside prisons. Inspector General John M. Moriarty of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice told lawmakers that his office's investigations revealed that a smuggled cell phone can cost an inmate anywhere from $400 to $2,000.

Instead of resorting to cell jamming technology he said, Congress and states need to impose tougher penalties for smuggling cell phones inside prisons. Largent noted a California inspector general report that described a correctional officer who made $150,000 smuggling cell phones into his prison. The officer was terminated but faced no criminal charges.

Supporters of jamming, such as Moriarty, say they have created layered defenses to stop cell phone smuggling, but the phones keep getting in.

"Signal jamming is the key component missing," he said.


This report was compiled from the written statements on the public record provided to the committee. You can find them here.

♦ Photo of "Cell Phones Kill" by jennY/Flickr

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