Bill would permit jamming cell phones in prisons

Move aimed at curbing active criminal conduct

Calling illegal cell phone use by prisoners “a significant threat to security within Maryland’s prison system and to our overall public safety,” Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) wants federal permission to demonstrate cell phone jamming technology in a state prison.

Current federal law prohibits anyone but federal officials from using radio jamming devices, however, and the test is unlikely to be approved unless a bill in the Senate is passed to allow waivers for using the tools in jails and prisons.

“The governor’s goal is to stop criminal conduct from behind prison walls,” said O’Malley’s Press Secretary Shaun Adamec. “It’s a problem in Maryland. The state has been innovative in finding ways to detect and seize cell phones,” but keeping them out of prisoners’ hands is proving difficult, if not impossible.

In a letter sent May 7 to  Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), O'Malley said 947 illegal cell phones were recovered in Maryland prisons in 2008, an increase of more than 70 percent from 2006. The state began training dogs to locate the phones in June 2008, and to date they have sniffed out 75 illegal phones. O’Malley cited a case in which a murder suspect being held for trial in the Baltimore City Detention Center ordered the killing of a witness by using an illegal cell phone.

O'Malley also cited cases in Massachusetts, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Kansas, Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee in which phones were used to organize murders, escapes and other crimes.

“Current attempts to ensure that cell phones stay out of prisons can easily be foiled and must be supplemented by the best technology available,” O’Malley wrote. “Using jamming technology would provide us with the tools necessary to eliminate the threat cell phones pose in our prisons.”

Federal law and Federal Communications Commission rules make cell phone jamming devices illegal except for feds. The military uses such devices to neutralize improvised explosive devices in Iraq and other war zones. Unauthorized jamming can carry fines of up to $11,000 a day, and the commission actively enforces the ban..

However, the law and rules haven't stopped the public's interest in jamming technology. According to a commission notice issued in 2006, “the FCC has seen a growing interest in the devices. Inquiries about the use of cellular jammers are often accompanied by comments that the use of wireless phones in public places is disruptive and annoying.”

The FCC's position is that no matter how annoying, people cannot legally block cell phone use. But some vendors apparently are targeting that market. “Advertisements for cellular jammers suggest that the devices may be used on commuter trains, in theaters, hotels, restaurants and other locations the public frequents,” FCC said.

Apparently there are no plans to legalize cell phone jamming in public places, but Senate Bill 251, the Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009, would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to let the FCC grant waivers for their use in state and federal prisons.

The bill would allow the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and state governors to petition the FCC for a waiver “for the sole purpose of preventing, jamming or interfering with wireless communications within the geographic boundaries of a specified prison, penitentiary or correctional facility.”

The devices would not be allowed to interfere with emergency or public safety communications and would have to be operated at the lowest power needed, and use directional technology to avoid interference with legitimate commercial communications. The waivers could be revoked or modified if commercial carriers show that there is improper interference. The FCC would have to certify the devices for use in the United States.

The bill was introduced in January and was referred to the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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Reader Comments

Mon, Aug 31, 2009 Gary Lee MN, USA

Jamming is a very serious action. The Communications Act of 1934 is based largely on international treaty, which carries the weight of constitutional law. The Senate should think long and hard about this one. However, some of the comments are mindless. As an example, whether we use or do not use this technology in prisons, it is readily available. I get ads every week from companies selling this sort of equipment (I got one today for a unit with a 60 meter radius of covereage). Most of it is made outside the US, but there are manufacturers here in my home state making this sort of equipment and then shipping it outside of the US, including to our own military who have very good reasons to need this (can you spell "IAD"?) And yes, it is already used illegally by some organizatons. When they get caught they pay the fine, and then buy newer, harder to detect equipment. So the argument that this will make a new technology availabe to the bad guys is totally ridiculous. Similarly for the argument of just preventing prisoners from getting their hands on cell phones (and drugs and weapons and the like). Yes, you can increase security in prisons. It costs money, lots of money, to run them already. Increases in security cost lots more money for things like more personnel, more equipment and the like. Cell phone jammers are comparatively cheap. "Fiscal responsibility" is a euphenism for "further budget cuts", and the porous perimeters of prisons are one of the results. So let's focus on intelligent proposals which are within the resources we have and the resources we choose to allocate, and what the costs and risks are. If it is within the power of the Senate under the treaty to allow this, then it is worth considering as a fairly inexpensive approach to a very serious problem. We just need to make sure we are not jumping onto another one of those slippery slopes, lest next year we have every boss who thinks his employees get too many personal phone calls thnking he can plunk one of these things down in the middle of the office.

Wed, Jul 15, 2009 Oklahoma

Cell Phones should not be in prisons. Just enforce the current laws and keep drugs, cell phones and ohter contraband out of the prisons. Start convicting the people that are allowing these types of items into the prisons, which are the people overseeing and working in the prisons. A pay increase for good employess may help a lot.

Tue, May 26, 2009 Don

My Jail is next to a major highway to block the calls from this prosion could also block calls from the highway. This could be a problem with 911 in the event some one needed help on the highway. Prison employees could register thier cell, but might bring a some other phone to work, wife or husband and this would bypass the block. I don't think the cellular companies can tell where the call comes from. If this law when in to affect better software would be needed to manage the system, but could be done.

Tue, May 26, 2009 Barbara Duck Orange County, CA

Why not use Device Manners Policy, patented by Microsoft. I have written about it many times related to healthcare, good use for areas in hospitals and other areas. It could get the job done.

Tue, May 26, 2009 arclight

All: Before you say this is a no-brainer, how will you keep jammers out of the hands of criminals? The same way you do guns? How do jammers help home invaders? Do you want your ability to call for help in case of a home invasion to be removed? This is absolutely the WRONG solution to this problem. The correct solution is to (a) put up cell equipment in the prison itself (so that all calls within the prison will by definition be handed into the prison site), and (b) arrange for the calls within the prison to flow through the prison switch and be RECORDED. Control coverage by these sites outside the prison, and clearly mark the handover perimeter with signs so that nobody could say their privacy was violated without warning. Legitimate cellphone use would be curtailed due to loss of privacy, but essential calls could still get through. Illegitimate cellphone use would provide a source of intel (for those prisoners stupid enough to actually try to use a cellphone). By defining the area within the prison as a zone where monitoring was permissible, the problem would stay solved without having to resort to jamming or other stupidity. Additionally, the presence of the cellular equipment would provide good comms for the prison guards.

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