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Cell-phone problem in prisons leads to calls for jamming law


An x-ray of an attempt to smuggle a cellphone into an El Salvador prison through the intestinal track (AP photo)

By Samantha Friedman
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — State prison inmates Charles Wilson and convicted murderers Calvin Adams and Jeffrey Grinder plotted their recent escapes from the Cummins Unit by using contraband cell phones, according to the Arkansas Department of Correction.

The escapes illustrate a growing prison problem, both in Arkansas and across the nation. In increasing numbers, inmates are using cell phones to commit criminal activities while behind bars. Although a law passed in the last session of the Arkansas Legislature makes possession or use of a cell phone by an inmate a felony, state prison officials would like Congress to pass a law that would allow them to make contraband cell phones useless.

“Cell phones are one of the biggest problems that correctional administrators face today,” said Department of Correction Director Larry Norris. “Inmates are using cell phones to plot escapes, and they’re using cell phones to set up drug deals,” Norris said. “These folks have got 24/7 to figure a way to beat us, and sometimes we get beat.” Correction officials are pushing for a federal law that would amend the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits states from blocking radio signals, and would allow states to jam cellphone signals in prisons. Currently, the Federal Communications Commission allows federal agencies only, not states, to jam cell phones.

“When that thing passed, I don’t think they really contemplated the development of cell phones,” said state Correction Department spokesman Dina Tyler.

The proposed legislation, called the Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009 and introduced by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, in Janu- ary, would give each state the right to request a waiver from the FCC to install devices that jam cell-phone signals within the confines of correctional facilities.

“The [state] Department of Correction is all for cell-phone jamming,” Tyler said. “We fight contraband every day - tobacco mainly, drugs sometimes, maybe clothing, and of course, cell phones. If there was one cell phone, it would be a big problem. When you’re talking about over 100, it’s just scary.

“If all they were doing was trying to talk to Momma, it’d be one thing. But I can assure you, it’s not what all of them are doing, and we’ve had the two escapes that bear that out.”

Persistent Problem

So far this year, state prison officials have confiscated 136 cell phones, though prison officials “search inmates and their property all the time,” Tyler said. The problem has worsened since last year, when officials found 167 phones over the course of the entire year. Visitors, vendors and staff have all been guilty of smuggling cell phones to inmates, and once phones are in, inmates share them with one another.

Because cell phones can be tiny, inmates sometimes hide them in their bodies. Earlier this month, an inmate was found with a cell phone hidden in his rectum, Tyler said.

“Part of the thing we do is have them spread and cough, and it came out,” she said. “That’s part of the problem. Imagine a visitor who’s female.” Last year, South Carolina prison officials uncovered a plot in which cell phones were launched over a prison fence with a spudooka, also known as a pneumatic potato launcher.

The growing availability of prepaid cell phones has contributed to their growing presence in prisons, Tyler said.

“Cell phones can be obtained so easily,” she said. “You can buy them right off the rack; you don’t even have to sign up for them and state who you really are. You just go pick one up at the discount store, get some minutes and away you go.” Furthermore, she said, because cell phones are made largely of plastic, it’s difficult for metal detectors to discover them.

The approved means of inmates communicating with family is through a monitored inmate phone system to people on a preapproved calling list. Call recipients are charged $3 per call, plus 12 cents per minute for up to 12 minutes.

Earlier this year, Norris outlawed cell phone use inside prison walls by anyone, including his staff and visitors.

“I was looking for anything that would work, to tell you the truth, and I was worried that some staff members may be wearing their cell phones in and inmates were getting to use them,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s had all that much effect. We’re still finding cell phones probably at about the same frequency as we did before we instituted the policy.”

Technology Available

Bill co-sponsor Republican Rep. John Boozman of Arkansas said he’s seen jamming technology in place at the Capitol to protect the president.

“My experience has been around the Capitol that they tend to jam certain areas, and then you walk 10 feet away, and it’s fine, so I think they have the capability [to confine jamming to small areas],” he said. “Then again, I believe the law says if anything comes about as a result of any consequences that they didn’t realize, that there’s a means to deal with that, to discontinue it.” The legislation as introduced states that jamming devices must not “interfere with wireless communications that originate and terminate outside the area of the prison, penitentiary, or correctional facility.” The FCC has rejected requests from correctional administrators and companies that provide jamming technology from testing the technology, asserting that cell-phone jamming violates the 1934 legislation as well as FCC rules by willfully interfering with radio signals. The same law bars “the manufacture, importation, marketing, sale or operation of devices deliberately designed to jam or disrupt wireless communications.” As president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, Norris said he doesn’t know any prison directors who don’t support cell-phone jamming or at least trying it out.

“I’m told that I can be sitting in my office and jam just the office and walk out into the hallway and use my cell phone without a problem,” he said. “So what we’re trying to do is find out if that’s true. Certainly, we are in the public safety business, and we really don’t want to hurt anyone’s public safety operations - ambulances, police,” he said. “We’re all about those people being effective.” Critics say that for jamming to be effective, it has to be fartherreaching than that, however.

Jamming technology works by emitting a signal “that completely overloads the frequencies that the wireless carriers would use,” according to Christopher Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association in Washington, which represents the cell-phone industry.

“So, you would get no signal, in essence, in the jail,” he said. “The problem is in order to make sure you get all four corners of a prison, you have to overjam because you want to make sure you get up to the edges. If not, the prisoners will find it.

“The way jammers are designed, they’re not going to recognize or honor the boundaries of the jail. So, if you go and jam the jail, it’s not like the jamming signals are going to stop at the edge of the jail.” Like CTIA, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials - International is concerned that jamming will inevitably interfere with 911 calls, both within and outside prisons.

“We acknowledge that this is a growing problem within the prisons, and we do understand the concern,” said Yucel Ors, director of legislative affairs for the Alexandria, Va.-based group. “We’re working with Sen. Hutchison to ensure that if there is a waiver by the FCC, these systems will not interfere with public safety radio communications and/or the ability to call 911 by the general public. At this time, we haven’t seen a demonstration that can prove that these systems will not interfere with public safety.” CTIA encourages prison officials to consider alternatives to jamming, including managed access, through which a wireless network is installed in the prison that denies any cell-phone call placed within its coverage area from going through.

“You’re not preventing any signals, you’re just overlaying a wireless network that’s managed by a third party, and those calls get denied,” Guttman-Mc-Cabe said. “If the warden wants his/her phone to work, they can put those on a white list and allow those to go through, and if the prison wants to do some investigative work and try to trace some of the calls and tap them and listen in to them, you can do that through managed access. You can’t do that with jammers.” A second option his organization supports is cell detection.

“You just put a bunch of sensors in the jail, and when someone turns on a phone, it basically lights up the sensors and, based on triangulation, you can find out where the phone is,” he said. “Then, you just dispatch some corrections officers to go and grab the phone.”

Copyright 2009 Little Rock Newspapers, Inc.