Cell phone presence in prisons provokes calls to jam signals

April 13, 2009|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

When prosecutors revealed last month that a Baltimore man accused of using a contraband cell phone in jail to order the killing of a witness was again caught with an illegal phone behind bars, the judge's jaw dropped. He couldn't fathom how this keeps happening. It's "amazing," said U.S. District Court Judge Richard D. Bennett.

But jail administrators will tell you it's not. Cell phones are smuggled into prisons in Maryland and around the world by the thousands through visitors, corrupt guards and, in Brazil, carrier pigeons. They're thrown over barrier walls, carried in body cavities and delivered by UPS. Inmates use them to run drug operations, intimidate witnesses, plan their escapes, harass victims' families and pass the time, calling girlfriends and grandmothers without fear of officers listening in. A single jail phone, passed from one inmate to another, can rack up thousands of calls per month.

Correctional officers in Maryland and elsewhere have boosted efforts to fight the proliferation, which has worsened as phones have cheapened. Maryland pioneered using K-9 dogs to sniff out the devices and recently toughened fines for those caught introducing contraband. But the dogs and officers can't keep up with the smugglers, and prosecuting them is often a low priority.

There is something that can kill the problem in an instant, though: signal-jamming technology. It crushes communication and makes the phones useless, proponents say.

"That would be the ultimate," said Gary Hornbaker, assistant commissioner of the Maryland Correctional Pre-Release System and head of all Baltimore region Division of Correction facilities. "We wouldn't have to worry about [cell phones] at all. It would save time and money for all of us."

But it's not being used by anyone except a few federal agencies because the Federal Communications Commission says such signal interference is banned under a 1934 law, enacted when cell phones weren't even a fantasy and land lines were in less than half of the country's households. That means the president's security detail can jam signals, but jails can't.

Bills before Congress aim to make cell jamming legal in prisons, and they've got a strong list of supporters, including the American Association of State Correctional Administrators and Gary D. Maynard, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. He's on a list of potential witnesses for a bill hearing next month.

But they've also got big foes, namely CTIA-The Wireless Association, a powerful lobbying group that frequently donates to political campaigns and represents every aspect of the multibillion-dollar wireless industry. CTIA worries that cell jamming could interfere with legitimate calls nearby and interrupt emergency communications. The National Emergency Number Association and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials expressed similar concerns.

The technology prevents a cell phone's signal from reaching out, so the phones can't make calls. Howard Melamed, chief executive of Florida-based CellAntenna Corp., which sells jamming technology abroad, says he can block a cell phone in the tiniest of areas, right down to the one in your pocket, without affecting anyone else. But CTIA isn't sold.

"Radio signals don't neatly stop at the edge of a prison perimeter fence or right at a wall. That's physics," said Brian Josef, director of regulatory affairs for CTIA.

His group has a contentious relationship with Melamed, with the two often butting heads. The CEO claims wireless carriers don't want to allow jamming because it would cost them at least $4 billion a year in proceeds from the illegal calls. CTIA refuses to respond to that allegation and calls Melamed a lawbreaker. The association has several times blocked Melamed's efforts to demonstrate the technology by complaining to the FCC, successfully petitioning to shut down demonstrations planned recently for Washington and Louisiana.

An FCC spokesman said the communications agency has no position on the congressional bills or on Melamed's technology - it's just enforcing the law as written.

The Communications Act of 1934, which created the FCC, specifically prohibits interference with licensed radio communication unless it's by an exempted federal agency, like the Drug Enforcement Administration but not the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Jamming critics point to other available technology that can be used to track down phones. But local prison officials say the cost is prohibitive and it still requires staff time to find the phones. They prefer jamming.

Melamed says jamming costs about a dollar a square foot, with most prisons allocating 250 square feet per inmate. That means a 508-person facility like the Baltimore City Correctional Center on Greenmount Avenue should cost about $127,000 to jam.

Jamming proponents say the money is worth it if it saves lives and prevents fights over the phones in jail, where they trade for 10 times their retail value.

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