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Bill Would Allow Prisons to Jam Cell Phone Signals

01/16/2009 -Legislation introduced into both houses of Congress yesterday would give prisons the right to block cell phone signals inside their walls after receiving permission from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The Safe Prisons Communication Act, introduced by Senator Kay Hutchison (R-TX) and Representative Kevin Brady (R-TX),seeks to block cell phone calls from inmates that have had the devices smuggled into the prison for them.

“This legislation will fight criminal enterprises behind bars and protect innocent victims and public officials from harassment and threats from criminals,” said Hutchison. “Recent cases of prisoners smuggling cell phones behind bars highlight the need to use current technology to prevent this ability.”

Much to their chagrin, state and local officials cannot do anything to interfere with federal airwaves because of the 1934 Federal Communications Act. Federal agencies can do so only during "life and safety situations" after the FCC has given its permission.

Prison officials say they need this capability to combat all types of crimes that can be committed by an inmate's access to a phone, ranging from contraband smuggling to credit card fraud to worse.

The most shocking case of cell phone smuggling occured in July of 2007, when inmate Patrick Albert Byers, Jr., allegedly used a smuggled cell phone to order the hit of Carl Lackl Jr. in Baltimore. Lackl was set to testify in Byers' murder trial. Byers now faces the death penalty for his crime.

Texas has had its own problems with contraband cell phones as well. Texas prison officials confiscated 678 cell phones from prisoners between August 2007 and September 2008, up almost 29 percent over the previous year. Last October, Texas prison officials confiscated the contraband cell phone of death row inmate Richard Tabler. Tabler used his cell phone to make threatening calls to a Texas state senator. 

Under the legislation, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a governor, or a governor’s designee can petition the FCC to allow a specific prison the ability to use a cell phone jamming device. Once the petition is submitted, the FCC will determine whether or not the jamming device could block emergency communications or interfere with legitimate wireless calls in the area. The FCC will also test and approve devices for prison use.

“I strongly urge my colleagues to get behind this legislation,” said Brady. “It is unacceptable that these inmates have been able to threaten people from behind bars, and it must not continue.”