Government // Enterprise Architecture
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7/16/2009
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Senate Seeks FCC Approval To Jam Prison Cell Phones

Legislation aims to stop organized-crime members from using smuggled cell phones to conduct criminal activities from prison.

With strong bipartisan support to permit the jamming of cell phone signals in prisons, the issue will head to the Federal Communications Commission, which has had longtime jurisdiction over wireless jamming and interference measures.

The debate has received widespread attention this week in hearings conducted by the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee. The Safe Prisons Communications Act, co-sponsored by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Senator Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), calls for the FCC to give correctional facilities a waiver to operate cell phone signal jamming devices at their prisons.

The hearings produced several horror stories of prisoners using contraband cell phones to order assassinations and harass state legislators from death row.

Senator Mikulski discussed how organized-crime members in prisons used smuggled cell phones to conduct criminal activities. "As one reporter described it," she said in a statement, "from their prison cells and with the help of corrections staff, members of violent gangs were feasting on salmon and shrimp, sipping Grey Goose vodka, and puffing on fine cigars, all while directing drug deals, extorting protection money from other inmates, and arranging attacks on witnesses and rival gang members." One inmate used a cell phone to order a hit on a witness.

Senator Hutchison noted that the proposed legislation directs the FCC to conduct "a robust rulemaking" procedure into the issue while also conducting a device approval process that would ensure that jamming devices operate with low power output and that interference issues likewise would be addressed. Each prison would individually apply to deploy jamming technology.

"We put criminals in prison to end their ability to commit crimes and terrorize the public," said Hutchison. "We cannot look away knowing full well that no matter how hard our dedicated law enforcement and corrections professionals work to stop them, contraband phones will get into prisons and be used to commit unspeakable acts."

Public interest groups have urged lawmakers not to rush to judgment on the issue, taking care that public safety signals not be jammed in the process of jamming signals at prisons.

Steve Largent, president and CEO of wireless trade association CTIA, told Senators about technologies that could enable prison officials to detect contraband phones, which could then be confiscated. "The right solution," said Largent, "is one that effectively prohibits access by those who should not have it while ensuring that law-aiding citizens and public safety users enjoy the most reliable service possible."


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