Feds to examine ways to jam prisoners' illicit cell phone calls

Federal regulators are now seeking input on ways they can jam signals or otherwise crack down on prisoners who smuggle and use cell phones in federal jails.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), part of the Commerce Department, announced Wednesday in the Federal Register that it hoped to collect suggestions on technologies that could block illegal phone calls in a way that would not simultaneously interfere with wireless devices used by police officers and other prison staff.

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“The illicit use of cell phones by prisoners is a danger to public safety and must be addressed,” said Lawrence E. Strickling, assistant secretary for Communications and Information and NTIA administrator, upon announcing the notice of inquiry.

“At the same time, we need to make sure that any technical solutions do not interfere with 911 calls, government or other legitimate cell phone use," he said.

Federal law enforcement have long pointed to illicit prison cell phone use as a serious problem, as it allows incarcerated criminals or detained suspects the ability to phone out to co-conspirators, who could hamper investigations or threaten witnesses.

According to NTIA, the problem has worsened recently, as law enforcement in Maryland alone confiscated well over 1,700 phones from inmates just last year -- up from 1,200 in 2008.

The Senate in 2009 sought to address the issue when it unanimously passed the Safe Prison Communications Act, which in part allowed the FCC to grant permission to prison authorities to jam or interfere with illicit cell phone signals. However, the bill has yet to clear the House, and a number of public-interest groups maintain that the legislation is both vague and ineffective.

Ultimately, supportive lawmakers added a rider to the Commerce Department's 2010 appropriations bill that would require NTIA and other agencies to "develop a plan to investigate and evaluate" cell phone jamming in prisons. The NTIA's notice on Wednesday satisfied that congressional mandate. NTIA plans to close its public comment period by June 11.