Bill would permit jamming cell phones in prisons

Maryland’s Gov. Martin O’Malley wants to demonstrate cell phone jamming technology in a state prison, but current federal law prohibits the practice. A bill before the Senate would allow prisons to jam illegal cell phones.

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.

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