Jamming cell phones in prison

Our view: Correctional officers need every tool available to maintain security behind bars

February 18, 2010

There's a growing sense among the nation's correctional institutions that the most dangerous contraband being smuggled into prisons isn't drugs, and it's not weapons. It's cell phones. They're turning up by the thousands in prison cells in Maryland and across the nation, and they're being used to coordinate criminal activity behind bars and on the outside.

One of the most famous cases was the 2007 murder of Rosedale man Carl Lackl, who was a witness to another killing. A week before Mr. Lackl was to testify, the defendant in that case, Steven Byers, arranged his murder from behind bars, using a contraband cell phone. Even worse, as the trial for the Lackl killing approached, prison authorities discovered that Mr. Byers had secured another cell phone behind bars and was using it to intimidate a witness in the new case. Witness intimidation is hardly the only threat from cell phones. In Oklahoma last summer, for example, riots erupted simultaneously at four different prisons, limiting the state's ability to shift resources to restore order. Officials learned that the actions were coordinated by contraband cell phones. The problem is so widespread that Texas authorities recently confiscated several cell phones from death row.

The ability of correctional officers to communicate and coordinate their activities has long been a key advantage in their efforts to maintain order and safety behind bars, said Maryland Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Gary D. Maynard, and that advantage is rapidly being neutralized. Authorities in Maryland have gone to extraordinary lengths to try to crack down on the problem -- including the use of cell phone-sniffing dogs -- but they haven't been able to take the most obvious step: jamming the cell phone signals. The Federal Communications Commission has long held that a law dating back to decades before the invention of the cell phone prohibits signal jamming by anyone except a few federal agencies. Prison officials are salivating for the technology, but they haven't been allowed to do so much as test it.

Until yesterday, that is. Federal officials tested cell phone jamming technology at a federal prison near Cumberland, and Maryland officials are hoping that if it is successful, it could lead to a move in Congress to overturn the ban.

It may not be so easy. Cell phone companies have balked at the idea of changing the law, saying they fear that the jamming devices could interfere with legitimate calls, too. They don't say so, but the revenue from prison telephone calls -- a contraband cell phone, passed from one prisoner to another, can be used to make thousands of calls a month -- might also be a factor.

But breaking the barrier to testing the technology is an important step.

It will be a few months before final results of the test are available, but the immediate indications seem promising. Officials with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration set up the equipment for the test -- a black box about the size of a VCR, connected to antennae that broadcast radio waves to cancel out those used by cellular service providers. Meanwhile, an NTIA van took measurements around the perimeter of the prison to gauge whether outside signals would also be blocked. Officials inside the prison were unable to make cellular calls while the device was turned on, but Gov. Martin O'Malley, who attended the test with Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, pulled out his cell phone while standing next to the test van and made a call with no difficulty.

Maryland isn't relying solely on jamming to solve its contraband cell phone problems. Mr. Maynard's department has revamped its security procedures and purchased more X-ray equipment to scan boxes and packages coming into the prisons and scanners that can detect contraband hidden in body cavities. (Recently, Mr. Maynard said, one of the scanners detected a handcuff key stuffed up a man's nose.) The department is looking into technology to triangulate signals from cell phones within its prisons, and the cell-phone sniffing dogs are still on the prowl. But in the effort to keep inmates, correctional officers and the community safe, we should make sure prison officials have every tool at their disposal. We hope yesterday's test will move the debate over this technology to how best it can be employed, not whether it should be used at all.

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