Criminal Calling

Our View: Blocking Illicit Prison Cell Phones Is An Experiment Worth Making

April 16, 2009

A proposal to allow prison officials to jam the signals of cell phones used illegally by inmates is about preventing crimes and saving lives. Public safety officials in Maryland and elsewhere say such technology would allow them to stop illegal phone calls at the source and save the manpower used now to search for cell phones that have been smuggled into prisons and jails. But the wireless industry has thrown up its own barrier, opposing federal legislation that would permit the jamming.

At issue is the Communications Act of 1934, which prohibits interference with radio communications except by certain exempted federal agencies, and the Bureau of Prisons is not among them. The law is outdated and should be revised to reflect the use of cell phones today. The wireless industry has been successful so far in keeping the law unchanged because it says jamming cell phone signals from prisons would interfere with other telecommunications and possibly emergency networks.

There is one way to find out - establish several pilot projects for a limited time and monitor the impact. That would be the responsible way of assessing the industry's claim. Congress shouldn't cave to pressure from the cell phone industry without credible evidence of the potential havoc its leaders say will result from permitting the use of jamming technology. The calls from illegal cell phones amount to about $4 billion a year, which explains why the industry is fighting so hard to protect its turf.

Prisoners across the country have been caught using cell phones to commit crimes - including an alleged hit on a correctional officer in Massachusetts, the murder of a witness here in Maryland, credit card fraud in South Carolina and a mass prison riot in Oklahoma, according to a report by The Baltimore Sun's Tricia Bishop.

These examples may be in the minority of the thousands of prisoners incarcerated today. But prison sweeps in Maryland, for example, are turning up more and more cell phones. And even if inmates are only using them to talk to their grandmothers, that's a privilege to which they are not entitled.

Corrections officials in Maryland are sufficiently concerned about the phone abuse that they are willing to give up the cell phones guards now use to communicate within prison walls. The guards also have radios and can use land lines.

Here is an opportunity to use technology to better police a prison and protect public safety. The wireless industry hasn't sufficiently made its case for Congress to ignore the reality inside U.S. prisons.

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