Though Texas instituted a "zero tolerance" policy on cell phones last year after a death row inmate called Sen. Whitmire's office (leaving an open question what level of "tolerance" they operated under before), the senator told the committee that strategy cannot succeed, according to AP: "'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.'"
Information Week provided good coverage from the hearing ("Senate mulls jamming cell phone signals in prison," July 15):
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.
The part about the homing pigeons cracked me up. Prison smuggling often produces some surprisingly creative and resourceful schemes, when you pay attention to the details, but that one takes the cake! Guard corruption is still the principle culprit, though; TDCJ caught dozens of guards smuggling cell phones onto prison units after they instituted a lockdown last year.
Wireless companies also opposed the legislation, according to coverage in a Florida paper:
The cell phone lobby is fighting the prison officials. John Walls of CTIA - The Wireless Association (formerly known as the Cellular Telephone Industries Association) told the Chronicle that jamming technology "is imprecise. The problem with jamming technology is that's it's imprecise."
He added: "We're certainly not at odds on the intent. There's not one legitimate customer that we have behind bars, and shutting that off is as much of a concern to the industry as anybody else. … Where we think that perhaps we could do a better job ... is by looking at all the solutions available today and selecting the ones that protect legitimate use while still solving the problem, and that would be cell detection and managed access."
MORE: Here's a little more detail about the bill from BroadbandConsensu.com that I hadn't seen published elsewhere: "While S. 251 does not call for an outright legalization of jamming technology, it allows for prisons to apply for a waiver from the ban and provides for Federal Communications Commission testing and certification of jamming technology."
See related Grits coverage:
- Hutchison seeks cell phone jamming authorization
- Texas prison cell phone scandal making national news
- Senate committee examines reasons for contraband smuggling
- FCC has no authority to approve cell phone jammers
- Chasing illegal cell phone use in TDCJ
- Cell phone trafficking in Texas prisons
- Guards and contraband smuggling in prisons and jails
- Texas prison guards smuggle cell phones to inmates
- Even death row not immune to contraband smuggling
- Has TDCJ learned the right lessons from death-row cell-phone scandal?
- Few prison guards fired, prosecuted for contraband smuggling
- New rules for TDCJ phone service approved