WASHINGTON — A new bill that will allow states to petition the Federal Communications Committee for approval to jam or block cell phone signals from within prisons was recently passed by the Senate.
The Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009, which next goes to the House of Representatives for consideration, was introduced in an effort to reduce the number of cell phones smuggled into correctional facilities for use by inmates.
Critics argue that jamming technology could interfere with emergency phone calls and legitimate cell phone service near the prison.
The federal Communications Act of 1934 permits the federal government and its agencies to jam communications, including those conducted via cell phone.
However, the existing statutes prohibit state and local authorities from using jamming technology to interfere with such communications.
Federal and state officials in Maryland have been strong proponents of the bill. Supporters include U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Governor Martin O’Malley and Secretary of Maryland Public Safety and Correctional Services Gary Maynard.
Inmates have used cell phones to circumvent security sweeps by notifying one another of contraband that is being searched for, to contact dangerous connections outside the prison, and, in at least one case, to plan murders, according to reports.
Last May, a Baltimore drug dealer was convicted of murdering a witness, a task accomplished by using a cell phone from within prison to call out a hit.
“Cell phones are perhaps the worst type of contraband, because in most cases, they provide an easy, continuing connection back to the inmate’s life on the street — the type of lifestyle that led to them being incarcerated with us,” Maynard says.
Last year, 849 phones were discovered in Maryland penitentiaries, 2,809 cell phones were discovered in Californian prisons and 1,861 phones were detected in Mississippi facilities.
In 2008, Maryland was the first state to use and train cell phone-detecting dogs, which are now used in the state’s 20 facilities. Other security equipment employed in Maryland prisons includes ion scanning equipment and BOSS chairs, used to detect phones hidden in body cavities.
A primary concern with the Safe Prisons Communications Act is the FCC’s current control over the use of jamming devices. According to the bill, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons or a governor can petition the FCC to request use of a jamming device.
Before approval is granted, FCC officials would then test prison wireless jamming equipment to ensure it does not affect service outside of the prison or interfere with emergency or public safety calls.
“We understand that right now [jamming] is illegal and we understand there are concerns from the telecommunications industry,” Vernarelli says.
In September, correctional officials from Maryland, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, the National Governor’s Association, the American Correctional Association and the American Jail Association attended a test of cell phone detection technology at Maryland’s inactive Jessup prison.
The detection equipment demonstrated by five of the six vendors present would not require a change in law, as the technology didn’t interfere with cell phone signals. The sixth company, Tecore Networks of Columbia, Md., demonstrated the use of Intelligent Network Access Controller, a product that cuts off unauthorized cell phone calls made from within the prison. The FCC granted a two-day waiver for testing of that product.
Amit Malhotra, Tecore’s vice president of marketing, says although the proposed bill puts an emphasis on jamming, corrections officials should also look at other solutions.