States want to jam prison cell phones

/ Source: The Associated Press

State officials appealed to members of Congress on Wednesday to give states a new tool to control illegal cell phone use by prison inmates and quickly ran into protests from the phone industry.

Industry representatives say jamming signals could interfere with legitimate service and 911 calls.

Prisons around the nation are grappling with rising problems from prison inmates using cell phones to coordinate criminal activity. Officials are backing legislation to change the law to allow states to use cell phone jamming technology to render cell phones useless in prison.

Texas State Sen. John Whitmire, whose life was threatened by a death row inmate with a cell phone, said cell phones smuggled inside prisons are the fastest growing and most alarming development in prison contraband in Texas. He said corrections officials are in "a war" and need the jamming tool.

"Short of jamming and a complete shutting down of those phone signals, I don't think we can remedy the problem," Whitmire told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. "It is a public safety problem."

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, is sponsoring legislation to change the law to make it possible for states to use the jamming technology. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is the lead co-sponsor for Democrats. A companion bill is pending before a House Judiciary subcommittee.

Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association, testified that he didn't believe cell phone jamming would fully address the issue. He told the committee there are better technological alternatives.

One alternative Largent proposed is called cell detection, technology that would enable prison officials to find a cell phone used inside a correctional environment without sending an interfering signal. By detecting the cell phone, prison officials could find and confiscate cell phones in prison without interfering with citizens' cell phone use or public safety channels.

Largent said another approach to the problem would be to use technology to manage wireless access in a prison. Managed access would restrict cell phone use in a certain area to people who are authorized to use it.

"Put simply, the right solution is one that effectively prohibits access by those who should not have it while ensuring that law-abiding citizens and public safety users enjoy the most reliable service possible," Largent said. His group, CTIA, is the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry.

The dangerous and far-reaching aspects of prisoner cell phone use were illustrated in Maryland two years ago, when a Baltimore drug dealer used a cell phone to plan the killing of a witness from the city jail. In May, Patrick A. Byers Jr. was convicted of murdering Carl S. Lackl Jr., who had identified Byers as the gunman in a previous killing.

Gary Maynard, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, emphasized that the problem is a national issue, noting that California prison officials collected more than 2,800 cell phones last year — two times the amount found the previous year.

"We need to fight technology with technology," Maynard said.

Maryland has made a request to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for a 30-minute demonstration at a Maryland prison that houses federal inmates to inform Congress about available technology to combat illicit cell phone use.

The agency shares responsibility for managing the nation's communications network with the Federal Communications Commission.

Last week, South Carolina's prison chief said corrections directors in 26 states signed on to a petition he sent to the FCC asking federal regulators' permission to jam cell phone signals inside state penitentiaries.

Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant secretary for communications and information at the Commerce Department, cited the South Carolina filing in a response to Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's request to the NTIA. Strickling wrote that he has reached out to the FCC "so that the two agencies can develop a coordinated approach with respect to the jamming issue generally and your specific proposal in the state of Maryland."

The FCC has authority over non-governmental radio communications, while the NTIA has authority over federal uses of the radio spectrum.

Under current law, the FCC can only allow federal agencies — not state or local authorities — permission to jam cell phone signals. The FCC has denied two recent requests from the District of Columbia and Louisiana for test jamming sessions.