By Kim Hart - 09/13/09 06:07 PM EDT
A bill to allow prisons to block calls from inmates using contraband cell phones won the backing of 20 governors last week, but faces opposition from the wireless industry and public safety officials.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, sponsored the legislation to prevent inmates from using smuggled-in cell phones to orchestrate escapes, make threatening calls or plot other crimes. Under the bill, states would be able to petition to use wireless jamming devices, which block cellphone signals in a particular area.
The committee approved the bill last month, and on Thursday 20 governors sent a letter to Capitol Hill voicing their support.
Governors from Maryland, California and Illinois were among the signers. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who Hutchinson is challenging in next year’s Republican primary, did not sign the letter. His spokesman later said he had already sent a letter in support of prisons’ use of jammers.
“Every year, inmates make thousands of illegal calls on cell phones smuggled into our country’s state and federal prisons and jails,” the governors said in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). “Many prisoners continue their criminal enterprises from behind bars, by threatening and intimidating witnesses, and in some cases, order murders.”
But wireless carriers say jammers would not only thwart calls within correctional facilities, but they could also interfere with the wireless networks outside the barbed wire fences and block calls to and from legitimate cellphone customers.
Because of the way radio waves travel, it is impossible to confine the choked off signals to the facility, said Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs for CTIA, the wireless industry’s lobbying group.
CTIA prefers the use of cellular detection technologies, which monitor the airwaves within a prison and pinpoint an inmate’s location if a call is registered with the networks. CTIA said another solution would be managed access technologies, which only allow calls from certain pre-registered numbers to connect to the wireless network.
“None of these solutions would require a legislative change to deploy,” Carpenter said.
Public safety associations have also expressed concerns that jamming devices could interfere with the communications of first responders working near or on prison campuses.
At a hearing on the issue in July, Texas State Sen. John Whitmire said he received a disturbing phone call from a death row inmate who was using an illegally obtained mobile phone from inside a prison. Several state corrections departments have noted the increasing number of mobile phones confiscated from inmates.
In response to the concerns from the wireless industry and public safety community, the bill now requires jammers, if approved, to operate at specified low power levels and be directed inward to minimize outside interference.
The bill, if passed by the full Senate and House, would require the Federal Communications Commission to establish rules and criteria for the approval of jamming devices before states’ petitions be accepted. Jamming devices, and any other system that intentionally interferes with wireless communications, are illegal.
The FCC would also have to conduct field tests of any approved jammers. Public safety officials would inspect the configuration of jammers before they are powered on. Correctional facilities would be required to have a documented procedure for shutting down the systems in case of emergencies.