October 22, 2008
Jamming Cell Phones In Prison
South Carolina wants to stop cell phone signals in prison to thwart additional crime by convicts; unfortunately, it's against the law.
Many states have tried to stop cell phone use in prison by performing cell searches, using body scanners, and training dogs to find batteries.
Jon Ozmint, South Carolina's state prison chief, wants to pair traditional methods with existing technology that blocks cell phone signals.
The federal Communications Act, which prevents states from interfering with federal airwaves, is keeping Ozmint, and other authorities, from using "jammers."
"This is a classic example of a rule that has not kept up with technology," said Ozmint.. "It's just hypocrisy beyond the pale of reason that the big bad federal government goes, 'Oh, well, we can use this technology, but you poor little states can't use the same technology to protect your citizens.'"
The consequences of not using jammers could be deadly. The most evident example occurred last summer in Maryland.
Thirty-eight year-old Baltimore resident Carl Lackl identified a shooting suspect, and was then murdered outside his home when the suspect used a cell phone to order the hit from inside prison.
Ozmint blames cell phones for many state prison escapes. In 2005, cell phones were found on two inmates who escaped from a Columbia, South Carolina prison by hiding in a trash truck.
This week, prison officials in Texas arrested the mother of a death row inmate, accusing her of paying for cell phone minutes on a phone smuggled to her convicted son. The inmate shared the phone with nine inmates, one of which called a state senator to say he knew the senator's daughters' names.
Texas prison systems inspector general, John Moriarty, said his team is looking into 700 smuggled cell phone incidents.
In some prisons, inmates can have years added to their sentence for having cell phones. In many states, it's illegal for officials or visitors to provide cell phones to inmates.
Many believe the use of jammers could prevent unmonitored calls from ever happening within prisons.
"We have no authority to even grant it if we thought it was worthwhile or something that was warranted," said FCC spokesman Robert Kenny. "It's likely going to take some level of action by Congress."
Ozmint has invited many federal officials, and state representatives to Lieber Correctional Institution in South Carolina to watch a demonstration of CellAntenna Corp's jamming device.
The device can prevent signals from reaching cell phones, blocking all calls. The devices are not able to block satellite phone signals, but satellite phones remain much more expensive, and would be far more difficult to smuggle into prisons.
Officials do not know the total cost to outfit South Carolina's prisons with the jammers.
Critics of the idea say it would be tough to contain the jamming technology to one or two buildings, and they believe nearby cell phone users would be affected.
"You can prevent emergency calls if these jammers are allowed," said Joe Farren, spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group for the wireless industry. "You put signal jammers in, you interfere with critical communications, life and death."
Zack Kendall, a security specialist for North Carolina's prison system, said he doesn't know whether his prisons would use signal blocking because it could interfere with internal radio communications.
Howard Melamed, chief executive of Coral Springs, Fla.-based CellAntenna, said signal jammers could be angled so cell phones won't work inside prison walls, but someone standing just outside would have no problem making a call.
"It's no different than turning on a light and making sure the light doesn't spread outside of a certain area," Melamed said.
Ozmint believes the technology would help him run a safer, more efficient prison system.
"As long as you have human beings in prisons as inmates and employees, and as long as there are human beings on the outside of those prisons, you're going to have contraband in prison," Ozmint said. "This is a threat that can be absolutely eliminated."