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Prison officials: Signal jamming would curb illegal cell phone use

Bills to allow signal jamming in federal prisons, which is currently banned, are pending in Congress


Mike Carpenter, chief of security for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections, testifies at a state legislative hearing about the use of cell phones in Oklahoma prisons.


Sean Murphy
Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Thousands of illegal cellphones are making it into the hands of prison inmates who use the devices to commit crimes, but prison officials testified Monday that they’re prohibited from using one of the best tools to stop it — jamming technology.

Prison officials from Oklahoma and South Carolina testified about the effectiveness of cellphone-jamming technology before an Oklahoma Senate committee. Federal law bans the use of such technology by state agencies, and it is opposed by the wireless industry.

Oklahoma seized more than 5,200 contraband cellphones from inmates last year. While that’s a decline from about 7,500 seized a year earlier, the problem remains a major one, said Mike Carpenter, chief of security for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.

Carpenter said a fight between rival gangs at an Oklahoma prison last month quickly escalated through the use of contraband cellphones into melees at several other prisons. One inmate was killed and more than a dozen were wounded.

“Do I think (cellphone) jamming would work? Absolutely,” Carpenter said.

The wireless industry opposes the use of cellphone-jamming technology inside prisons, mostly because of concerns that it would also block signals for legitimate users, said Gerard Keegan, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.

He says the group instead supports a “managed access” system in which technology is used to determine which signals inside a prison are from contraband cellphones so that steps can be taken to disable those targeted phones. He said the group also supports continued testing of cellphone-jamming techniques.

Federal legislation to allow states to use jamming technology is pending in the House and Senate.

“My suggestion is simple,” U.S. Sen. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma, said on the floor of the U.S. Senate earlier this year. “Let’s jam cellphones in prison for the protection of our guards, for the protection of our families, and to be able to block criminal activity from happening inside our prisons.”

Last year, federal officials tested micro-jamming technology at a federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland, and said they were able to shut down phone signals inside a prison cell, while devices about 20 feet (6 meters) away worked normally.