Senate Mulls Jamming Cell Phone Signals In Prisons

Proposed legislation seeks to halt the use of illegal cell phones in prisons but is countered by public interest agency officials.
Law enforcement and public safety officials are at loggerheads over whether to jam cell phone signals in prisons and the issue is playing out in U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearings beginning Wednesday in the nation's capital.

The alarming crop of illegal cell phones in prisons that are often used for criminal purposes is countered by public safety and public interest agency officials who fear jamming the signals would cause more problems.

The opening remarkets at the hearing are scheduled to be delivered by Texas State Senator John Whitmire, who personifies the problem: he was threatened by a death row prisoner who had obtained a cell phone for $2,100.

"I want to know how an inmate on death row gets a cell phone in the first place, and then how they and other inmates can make thousands of calls in a month without getting caught," Whitmire asked at the time.

The proposed legislation seeks to have Congress revise a 1934 law that blocks the jamming of phone signals. The bill, which would permit jamming cell phone signals in prisons, has been sponsored by Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who noted that a prison inmate in Maryland used an illegally obtained cell phone to order the killing of a witness.

"Just more than two years ago, Carl Lackl, a young father of two in Maryland, was killed after an inmate used his cell phone to order a hit," Senator Mikulski said in a statement. "This is not an isolated incident and it must stop. All across the country, cell phones are being smuggled into prisons and being used by inmates to communicate with criminals on the outside."

The other side of the issue was presented in a letter to Commerce Committee members by several public interest organizations. According to Public Knowledge the letter maintained that there are ways better than jamming to deal with the illegal cell phones-in-prison problem.

"Jamming prison cell phones would jeopardize public safety because there is no way to jam only phones used by prisoners," said Public Knowledge's legal director Harold Feld in a statement. "All wireless communications could be shut down within a prison…

"As spectrum experts have explained, jamming contraband cell phone signals without jamming authorized communications presents an extremely difficult engineering challenge. Cell phone signals use many bands, often proximate to or shared with public safety operations."

To alleviate the problem, Public Knowledge suggested that lowering the cost of legal calls in prisons -- currently costing as high as $300 for an inmate with family -- would help as would a stepped up effort to detect and stop the flow of unauthorized cell phones in prisons.

The flow of illegal mobile phone is eye-popping. California, for instance, confiscated more than 2,000 cellphones in 2008. Phones are sneaked into prisons by visitors and corrupt guards, or simply thrown over prison walls. In Brazil, where the problem has reached epidemic proportions, cell phones are delivered to prisoners by homing pigeons.

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