Tuesday, December 16, 2008

AG stops TDCJ conspiracy to commit federal crime: Cell phone jammer test canceled

The Texas prison system was planning to commit a federal crime on Thursday at the Austin state jail, but Attorney General Greg Abbott intervened - not with an arrest for conspiracy but with a polite note saying, basically, "Uh ... please don't violate federal law."

Readers will recall many historical instances where this crimefighting technique was effective - that's how they got Bonnie and Clyde, after all.

In any event, while this kid-gloves approach to conspiracy to commit a federal crime may sharply contrast with tough on crime rhetoric we're used to hearing from the Texas AG, it will likely be enough to prevent the testing of cell phone jammers designed to eliminate cell phone contraband inside Texas prisons. At the request of legislative officials, TDCJ planned such a test on Thursday, but Abbott now says if the agency goes ahead they "could be exposed to legal consequences."

Still, the conspirators are pushing forward, according to the Austin Statesman ("Cell phone jamming test off," Dec. 15):

Legislative leaders who supported the test were unhappy with the cancellation.

“I think it’s a good question why they’re backing up on this,” said House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Richardson. “But if they don’t want the test on their unit, fine, we’ll find someplace else to do it. We’re in the process of punting right now —looking for some place else to do it.”

Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who earlier prompted the crackdown on smuggled prison cell phones after receiving calls — and a death threat —from a death row convict, said prison officials should go ahead with the test. “This shows some very indecisive leadership at TDCJ, and it proves my point that I just don’t think they get it on this issue,” he said.

To be fair, it doesn't seem right to critique TDCJ as "ineffective" or "indecisive" for complying with the Attorney General's interpretation of whether or not the test would violate the law: We already knew it did. Besides, cell phone jammers are already used in some theaters and other private sector settings; they're fairly well known to work as advertised and I don't see why they need to be "tested."

What's needed instead is for the US Congress to change the 70+ year old statute, and that's not going to happen by this Thursday. Otherwise, testing the jammers without permission when they know it's against the law would amount to a bizarre and pointless act of civil disobedience by TDCJ; by any measure that's a rickety limb to ask a state prison system to crawl out on.

UPDATE: The FCC changed its mind and now says a test would be okay, though the AG points out they've cited no legal authority to explain the flip flop.


Anonymous said...

The demonstration was scheduled at the state jail in Austin by Florida-based vendor CellAntenna.

South Carolina recently had a successful demonstration of the jamming device. Officials said it successfully blocked cell calls inside a prison – without interfering with nearby cell traffic.

South Carolina and federal officials say no one has been charged since the demonstration in that state.

Howard Melamed, CellAntenna's president and CEO, said Thursday's demonstration is permitted under federal law because the device is a prototype not for sale in the U.S. "We can't sell this technology in the United States, but we can demonstrate it," he said.

Melamed said a Jan. 8 demonstration of the jamming device is scheduled in the District of Columbia. Other states have also requested demonstrations.

Anonymous said...

"Otherwise, testing the jammers without permission when they know it's against the law would amount to a bizarre and pointless act of civil disobedience by TDCJ; by any measure that's a rickety limb to ask a state prison system to crawl out on."

What country can preserve its liberties if its rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance?-Thomas Jefferson

Gritsforbreakfast said...

When Jefferson said that, I don't think he had in mind the prison system standing up for its rights!!

Anonymous said...

This is necessary, not pointless and / or bizarre. It is occasionally civil disobedience that is necessary to change an unjust law.

Lex unjusta non est lex. ( An unjust law is no law at all).


Anonymous said...

BB, civil disobedience also includes acceptance of the understood penalty, even if it's unjust. Does TDCJ know it wouldn't be penalized?

Anonymous said...

What is needed is for guards to be checked regularly. If they jam phones, will they just stop searching as often? Because cell phones are not the only contraband brought in, and they found plenty of other things during their recent searches.

It's a shame that they all but admitted that searching guards was impractical because they'd have to fire staff when they're already short.

W W Woodward said...

What's going on with some legislators and TDCJ seems to be another case of, "I don't care what the law says! I want to play by my rules and y'all can be damned! After all, an Attorney General's opinion is just one man's opinion."

I've personally heard the above from Legislators, TDCJ personnel (mostly ranking officers) and ex-TDCJ employees who are now working as wardens, asst wardens and corporate honchos in the private prison sector as well as from mayors and county judges.

The Constitutions, both US and Texas, do not recognise chain-link fences and razor wire. The penal laws of the State of Texas, as well as those of the federal government, do not stop at the wire. Making the "people in charge" recognise those facts is virtually impossible. Egos and the arrogant "By God! - I'm in charge!" attitude is an almost inpenetratable barrier.

To paraphrase another old saw - "You can lead a fool to the truth but you can't make him think."

The powers-that-be will figure a way around the law and conduct their tests. They will plead ignorance and blame it on someone else if they get called on it and will probably get away with circumventing the very laws under which they are incarcerating the rest of us.

Aside: Grits, I don't believe Jefferson would recognise rights of a prison system. Rights are for people. Governments and government agencies do not have rights to exercise.

W W Woodward said...


"Otherwise, testing the jammers without permission when they know it's against the law would amount to a bizarre and pointless act of civil disobedience by TDCJ;"

Not Civil Disobedience - Illegal acts of government amount to Tyranny!

Anonymous said...


Glad you were not around during the American Revolution. You probably would have fought with the Brits.

Anonymous said...

Good grief. This and other FCC laws are so outdated that nobody pays any attention to it.

I remember the CB craze of the
70's when people were running more wattage than allowed and radio transmissions could be heard over tv's and other appliances.

Hardly anyone bought a license to operate a cb either. The government couldn't keep up with the licensing process and eventually did away with it.

If you wanted to jam a radio transmission, you just held down the mike. No one went to federal prison either.

Anonymous said...

The cell jamming thing won't stop contraband coming into the prisons. Guards will find something else to bring in on which they can make extra money. I do find it hilarious that guards get so riled up about being searched in the same way prison visitors are searched. How dare we!

Anonymous said...

Screening officer and doing REAL background checks on officers might be cheaper than spending $1,000,000 per prison on cellphone jammers. The problems TDCJ is facing is due to the fact they do not wish to develop professional staff or pay professionals like other criminal justice agencies.