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Prisons Struggle to Keep Out Contraband Cell Phones

AMONG THE PRIVILEGES that inmates are supposed to lose in prison is the right to a private phone. The prohibition is important, because prisoners use phones for illegal activities. But authorities have had a hard time intercepting this dangerous contraband.

A case in point that made the news late last year was death row inmate Richard Lee Tabler, who was caught with a cell phone by Texas prison officials after he allegedly made calls to a state senator and told him he knew that he had two daughters. Tabler, a convicted multiple murderer, had the cell phone smuggled to him by his mother and had been charging other death row inmates to use it.

In another case, witness Carl Lackl Jr. was fatally shot three times last August in Baltimore, Maryland, before he could testify in the murder trial of Patrick Albert Byers Jr. The Justice Department alleges that Byers had arranged the hit from inside prison using a contraband cell phone.

The problem is widespread—and growing. Texas prison officials, for example, confiscated 678 cell phones from prisoners between August 2007 and September 2008, up almost 29 percent over the previous year, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. South Carolina prison officials confiscate anywhere from 80 to 100 cell phones a month, according to Josh Gelinas, communications director for the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC).

Cell phones are used to coordinate the smuggling of other contraband goods, such as alcohol and drugs, which are harder to sneak in now that the prison has enhanced access controls with x-ray equipment and metal detectors. Inmates use cell phones to coordinate drops, whereby an accomplice on the outside throws the contraband over a prison’s fence at a predetermined place, and the inmate retrieves it, explains Gelinas.

Since finding every cell phone seems impossible, an alternative would be to simply block the transmission. Cell phone jamming technology exists that could impede inmates from using cell phones, but a 1934 federal law prohibiting interference with federal airways makes it illegal to jam cell phones.

Federal agencies can be granted the authority to use jamming devices during “life and safety situations” by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in coordination with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). But state and local authorities aren’t given the same leeway.

In an effort to change that, Deputy General Counsel of Texas, Michael McManus, has petitioned the FCC for a waiver, asking “whether there is a process by which [the Texas Department of Criminal Justice] may be certified…to purchase and use cell phone jamming devices within the area that offenders…are incarcerated.”

Coral Springs, Florida-based CellAntenna Corp. has also petitioned the FCC to amend its rules and allow the company to sell cell phone jammers to state and local governments. “Inexplicably,” its petition notes, “there is no corresponding exception to state or local law enforcement agencies.”

The petition argues that barring state and local emergency responders from using cell phone jammers violates the Homeland Security Act of 2002. Amy Kudwa, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security, had no comment and directed Security Management to the FCC.

But Robert Kenny, an FCC spokesperson, says that the FCC can only enforce the law. Thus, companies selling the technology and state and local governments need to take their concerns to Congress.

Just before Thanksgiving, SCDC, in collaboration with CellAntenna Corp., held a demonstration of the technology’s capabilities at the Lieber Correctional Institution in Ridgeville, South Carolina. The demonstration of the briefcase-sized product, CJAMNF, took place in the prison’s visitation room, about the size of a high school cafeteria, says Gelinas. When the cell phone jammer was switched on, it blocked cell phone signals in the room, but signals outside the room were unaffected.

CTIA-The Wireless Association opposes allowing signals to be jammed. A change to allow state and local government to purchase cell phone jammers would be “shortsighted and dangerous,” says Joseph E. Farren, assistant vice president of public affairs for CTIA.

Cell phone jammers are illegal for a reason, he says, noting that they “can prevent emergency wireless calls from getting through.”

Farren says that a wiser approach to stopping cell phone use in prison is to adopt better anti-contraband measures.

Howard Melamed, CEO and president of CellAntenna, disagrees. The demonstration in South Carolina showed that jamming will not interfere with cell phones outside the surgically drawn boundaries of the jamming field, he says. During the demonstration, he tweaked his product to block only commercial cell phone signals inside the room. Emergency personnel, whose cell phones and walkie-talkies operate on another bandwidth, were unaffected.

Going forward, SCDC says that it will petition the FCC to allow it to initiate a cell phone jamming pilot program. The SCDC also plans to urge Senators Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) to introduce a bill to change the law.

If no action is taken legislatively to amend the law to allow state and localities to jam cell phones, says Melamed, he’s prepared to take the issue to court.

—By Matt Harwood, associate editor