You do not have the right to phone calls
Officials in charge of state and local correctional facilities are pushing for a change in federal law to allow them to jam wireless communications within the geographic boundaries of their facilities. However, an association representing the wireless communications industry insists that there are better ways to prevent inmates from using cell phones.
Corrections officials are supporting a bill introduced by Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Jim DeMint, R-S.C., that would enable the Federal Communications Commission to permit prisons and local jails to install cell phone jamming equipment. The bill passed the Senate Commerce Committee in August, but has not yet been approved by the full Senate.
While cell phones already are banned in most correctional facilities, they are frequently smuggled in and used in prison escapes, drug operations, credit card fraud and other crimes, says Josh Gelinas, director of communications for the South Carolina Department of Corrections. “It’s a link to the outside world,” he says. “[Inmates] can continue to perpetuate their criminal activities behind bars.”
One example is a 2007 case in which a Maryland Department of Corrections’ prisoner used a contraband cell phone from jail to arrange the murder of a man who had agreed to testify against him. Approximately 1,800 cell phones or cell phone parts were seized from inmates in 2008 in South Carolina prisons, Gelinas says.
However, jammed signals could block communications among law enforcement or people trying to call 911, says Brian Josef, director of regulatory affairs for Washington-based CTIA, the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry. “The way jammers work is that they send out an overwhelming signal,” he says. “Radio waves don’t stop at prison walls or a prison fence.“ He insists other technologies that detect cell phones can accomplish the same goal.
The Alexandria, Va.-based National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) supports the proposed bill. Local jail officials also must deal with the potential of prisoners using cell phones for illicit purposes, and would welcome another tool to prevent that activity, says Fred Wilson, NSA director of operations. “Cell phones in the hands of inmates are contraband,” he says. “I haven’t heard that it’s an epidemic, but it’s a security concern.”
— Annemarie Mannion is a Willowbrook, Ill.-based freelance writer.
EXPLORING OTHER OPTIONS
In Maryland, officials are investigating other technologies and have trained cell phone detector dogs that have found about 100 cell phones since 2008.
Source: Mark Vernarelli, director of public information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services