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Our View: Prison Officials Should Be Allowed To Try Jamming Inmates' Cell Phones

July 20, 2009

In the continual cat-and-mouse game between corrections officials and the inmates they oversee, the newest form of contraband are cell phones smuggled into prisons by visitors, contractors and corrupt guards. Inmates use the devices to communicate with associates and direct criminal enterprises from behind prison walls almost as easily as if they were still on the streets.

No one really knows how many contraband phones are floating around in the system, but over the last year Maryland has seen an increasing number of cases in which prisoners used cell phones to run drug operations, harass victims' families, plan escapes and even order witnesses killed to prevent them from testifying.

To combat the problem, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services has turned to new preventive measures, including more intensive searches of prison cells and common areas and dogs specially trained to sniff out contraband phones. But those efforts have met with only mixed success, and to supplement them the state wants to try out a range of new technologies aimed at keeping inmates from making unmonitored phone calls.

Some of those techniques will be on view in September, when the corrections department is planning to organize a prison technology expo of sorts. About a dozen companies have been invited to Baltimore to exhibit their wares and show off the methods they've come up with to distort, disrupt or divert cell phone signals inside prisons or to detect phones in operation there.

One technology the state may not be able to check out, however, is also the most direct: jamming the calls inmates try to make. Federal communications law dating back to the 1930s bars interfering with radio broadcast signals, the technology on which cell phone transmissions are based. But of course that law was passed in an era of rotary dial phones and rural party lines; it never envisioned the digital revolution or the far-reaching changes it would bring to the telecommunications industry.

The state has appealed to the Federal Communications Commission to allow a 30-minute demonstration of the prison cell phone jamming technology. Previously, the feds have refused such requests from the states, but Maryland's recent high-profile examples of use of cell phones behind bars to orchestrate violence and criminal activity outside show that jamming is a technology that should be explored.

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