Why cell phone jamming alone won't win this war

Today, the deadliest weapon a prisoner can possess, by far, is a cell phone. The growing problem of cell phones in prisons is one of the most alarming issues in modern criminal justice.

This is not news to corrections staff. Finally, however, it seems the government is acknowledging the problem and thinking about letting us to do something about it; tomorrow, the Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to vote on a bill to allow jailors to jam cell phone connections inside prisons.

The trouble, however, is that signal jamming simply isn’t the long-term answer.

(AP photo)
(AP photo)

Why hide when you can hunt?
Cell phone detection, already successfully used in prisons around the country, should be part of the solution to prison contraband. When turned on, all cell phones periodically transmit to the nearest tower. These signals can be easily detected.

State of the art systems placed throughout a prison act like ears listening for cell phone transmissions. They scan the entire North American cell phone bandwidth spectrum at a speed of seven times per second.

When sensors detect a call, special triangulation software pinpoints the phone’s location down to a small area then immediately alerts and directs corrections officers to the spot, enabling them to confiscate it within minutes. Inmates may try to make calls shorter, but cell phone detection picks up even the briefest communication.

Turning their weapons against them
Like a compass needle pointing in the direction of trouble, a detection system gathers critical intelligence, allowing security staff to target areas of concern.

In logs of cell phone activity, patterns emerge that help corrections officers understand the flow of contraband, allowing for precise searching and confiscation. Such directed searches make far better use of prison manpower than periodic general shakedowns that demoralize both guards and inmates – and often fail to find the goods. And because detection systems only listen – transmitting nothing – they don’t interfere with legitimate cell phone calls and other radio communications needed for the daily security of a prison.

Jamming legislation
Currently, several state corrections departments want to jam transmissions to cell phones by installing equipment to blast radio static over cell phone frequencies inside of prisons. This, however, violates the Federal Communications Act of 1934 which specifically forbids any interference with radio transmissions.

The two bills of the “Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009” (HR 560 and S.251) would change all this, allowing prisons to bypass the FCC restriction.

The trouble is that not only will jamming ultimately be two to four times more expensive than detection, but it can spread out beyond the prison walls. It can affect legitimate cell phone use in areas near the prison, such as offices, restaurants, residences and sidewalks.

In a perfect environment, jamming could be confined. However, as it stands now any change to that environment (like someone walking through a hallway or moving a file cabinet) might deflect the jamming signal in unintended directions. Even worse, some public safety communications bandwidths are immediately adjacent to cell phone bands and might be blocked by a prison’s jammer.

Think offensive not defensive
The biggest problem with jamming is that it does not detect cell phones, and thus doesn’t allow us to leverage this problem to our benefit. And it’s not foolproof – some phones may be able to work through jamming, perhaps aided by software that filters out jamming signals. In the end, jamming may create the illusion that the problem has been solved, while in reality doing relatively little to limit criminals’ ability to communicate outside of the prison walls.

Jamming is illegal for good reasons. It poses serious problems and yields no usable intelligence information. Cell phone detection is a better solution as it identifies phones inside the prison as soon as they are turned on, allowing corrections staff to quickly discover, track, and confiscate them.

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