Thursday, July 16, 2009

Jamming cell phones in prison debated at US Senate committee

A US Senate Committee yesterday heard testimony from Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, TDCJ Inspector General John Moriarty, and others regarding a proposed bill by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison that would change federal law to allow states to jam cell phones in prison.

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."

For more detail from critics of the idea, I've uploaded onto Google documents a copy of the letter to Sen. Hutchison from Public Knowledge and other interest groups critical of the jamming proposal.

MORE: Here's a little more detail about the bill from 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:


doran said...

And how many prison guards have been prosecuted for smuggling the cell phones to prisoners? Or fired?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Last I heard, Doran, not many.

Anonymous said...

First we jam the convicts then we add another group such as gang infested areas. Where does it stop. Bad people in government jump on situations such as the prison cell phone issue and use it to reduce everyone's freedoms over time. The gun control issue is a case in point. I remember when there we almost no gun laws and now there are areas in the U.S. where you cannot own a gun. First it was criminals, then people V.A. hospital records related to PTSD, and now they want to reject gun ownership if you are on the No Fly List or have bad credit. The taking of the People's Rights always hit the lowest of society and spreads from there. In my opinion the old laws worked better. We have enough laws on what someone might do, let's focus on actual law breakers and deal with them. Convict the guards and add 90 days in solitary for the inmate. Replace the rip-off phones in prison with regular phones which are monitored. Does everything in the prison system have to make big bucks for a few at the expense of the many? The cell phone jamming is probably more about boosting profits from in house phone rip-off systems than public safety. If a high level wants someone killed they don't have to get a cell phone. Last time I checked there is a thing called Visitation for inmates. Also gang bangers can use codes hidden in letters to get the job done.

Anonymous said...

I am not in prison and none of my family is in prison but I have worked at one. I am in a better position to know the truth about inmate communication to the free world. Don't buy one bit of this political BS. It is all about the price raping of the inmates and their families to be able to talk on the phone system of the prison!Outside companies operate the phone systems on contract. It all goes back to outside companies making big money and sharing the wealth with politicians. Doesn't Whitmire's law firm represent people trying to get state contracts such as in prison and jail phone systems?

Hook Em Horns said...

WHITMIRE ADMITS DEFEAT CONCERNING CONTRABAND -- Whitmire said Texas has tried every alternative to stop the phone. “We're still experiencing phones being intercepted and used in our prisons ... short of jamming and a complete shutting down of those phone signals, I don't think you can remedy the problem,” Whitmire said.

Treating cancer with aspirin! Typical Texas. Don't address the problem just address the cell phone's since a call threatened Whitmire. This is patently unacceptable. If these shady CO's are sneaking in cell phones, what it to stop them from turning the "jammer" off? Nothing...absolutely nothing. Money for nothing...

Anonymous said...

If this is such a public safety issue why are they not seeking to do the same in county jails all over the state?

Why is it that in Denton Co. an inmate can make a call to any phone(cell or not) on the outside with a prepaid phone card bought at the commissary and there is no public outcry or public safety fear?

Yes it is all about the money.

Anonymous said...

Remember when the London papers reported on the content of cell phone calls by Princess Diana?

There could be machine to detect when cell phone signals are comming from a prison area, when they are authorized and when they are not.

Simple matter to lock down the authorized phones and investigate any unauthorized activity on the cell phone channels. Then go find the contraband!

Probably a more effective solution and less of a problem for the general public.

trefs said...

If we can't keep phones out of prison, how can we keep drugs out of a free an open society?

There is only one answer to that question. We can't.

Anonymous said...

We cannot legislate and police every aspect of personal behavior, even in prison.

They cited ONE case of a cell phone actually being used to cause physical harm.

This is nonsense.

sunray's wench said...

You can jam cell phone signals, but you cannot jam drugs, money, guns or any other contraband that Sen Witmire has just admitted he cannot keep out of prison.

There is something very fishy going on here.

R. Shackleford said...

Sounds like another money making scheme, with sinister implications regarding the erosion of personal freedom down the road. The problem is crooked co's, not cellphones. Stop the co's from smuggling contraband in, no more problem.

Anonymous said...

Amarillo Globe News came out editorially supporting jamming in prisons. Talked about how dangerous cell phone are in prison, w/o saying how. No big surprise here!

charles in Tulia

The Law Offices of Philip C. Banks said...

Installing telephones in the prisons will make a difference. It is our understanding that this will happen througout this year. If this is the case, then the investment in this kind of technology is a dead issue.

Anonymous said...

The simple solution are cell phone detection devices that are available . I sent information about this to several Legislators and received no answer, why is that ?

Anonymous said...

I want to know what service these cons are using that they can get a signal in there steel and concrete cages. I live in Dallas and cannot get a signal in my house!