Combating Contraband Cell Phones in Prisons

Cell phones provide inmates with a connection to the outside world, so prison systems look at legal ways to prevent inmates from making calls while on the inside.
by | November 16, 2010

Jessica Mulholland

Jessica Mulholland is the associate editor of GOVERNING, and is also the associate editor of both Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.

When someone is sentenced to time in prison, the isolated quarters and security guards should minimize inmate contact with the outside world. But many inmates are conducting business and communicating with the outside world with contraband cell phones. One San Quentin convict, for example, wrote firsthand on KALW News' website about his fellow inmate's seemingly harmless communications with his girlfriend and updates on Facebook.

But it's not always so innocent. In South Carolina, which has reported confiscating 2,000 contraband cell phones this year, a convict allegedly used a smuggled phone to order the killing of a prison guard captain earlier this year. (The guard survived the attack.) In Texas, a death row inmate used a cell phone to threaten the life of state Sen. John Whitmire in 2008.

Nationwide, prisons are struggling with how to keep contraband cell phones out of inmates' hands. And it's a tough fight: There are reports that even prison guards have been found to smuggle them in for/to inmates. The Sacramento Bee reported that a no-name phone that costs just a few dollars outside prison walls sells inside for around $1,000. And that could make a hefty profit, since California officials reported confiscating 7,000 contraband phones this year.

Finding a solution to this problem continues to stymie states, sometimes putting them at odds with the wireless industry. "This is a contraband challenge that prisons have across the country, and how we solve that problem is where the disagreement comes," said K. Dane Snowden, vice president of external and state affairs at CTIA-The Wireless Association.

One controversial way to combat this problem is to jam the signals within prisons, which is said to interfere with mobile 911 calls and public safety communication, raising concerns for national public safety organizations. "We vehemently oppose prisoners having wireless devices in prisons," Snowden said. "Our view is we need to [handle] this in a lawful way, and jamming is not lawful as being proposed by the proponents of that technology."

A debate on jamming the airwaves has been raging in South Carolina for more than a year. The state's Department of Corrections, along with 30 other states, petitioned the FCC for permission to set up a jamming system that would render phones within a certain area useless. Its rationale is that because the federal Communications Act of 1943 states that jamming an authorized and legal transmission is illegal, jamming signals in prisons is legal because cell phones held by inmates are not authorized, said Department of Corrections Director Jon Ozmint.

The FCC has yet to respond to the petition. And because supporters of the petition don't expect its passage anytime soon, prisons must look at other solutions to remedy the situation, such as managed access systems and cell phone detection practices.

In Mississippi, where nearly 2,000 contraband phones were confiscated during the first half of this year, the Department of Corrections signed an agreement that immobilizes illegal cell phones used by inmates at Parchman Farm, the state penitentary. Rather than jamming signals, a third-party system intercepts calls, blocking unauthorized transmissions. This is known as a managed access system. Any calls made from a cell phone are checked against a registration database, and then transmitted to cell phone towers if authorized. If the mobile device isn't authorized, the system holds the call and the inmate hears a recorded message: "The cellular device you are using at the Mississippi State Penitentiary has been identified as contraband and is illegal to possess under the criminal statute 47-5-193. The device will no longer function."

The FCC and CTIA support this system, which is coordinated with cell phone carriers, and has blocked more than 216,000 texts and cell phone calls since Aug. 6, the Clarion-Ledger reported. The department plans on expanding the system to two more prisons.

Back in South Carolina, the Department of Corrections began testing a managed access system from a different provider in October. As the department planned to expand testing, however, Ozmint said the company put the pilot on hold, citing potential legal issues with call data captured by the managed access software. "The pen register [the registry of numbers called] of the cell phone is automatically captured, and the ability exists to record and listen in to conversations," Ozmint said. "And from the inmate's perspective, we'd be allowed to listen in. But there's potential for violating the Pen Register Act and federal wiretap statutes."

Ultimately, though, because both the FCC and CTIA are on board with managed access systems, Ozmint said if the current vendor doesn't remedy the situation quickly, he'll likely start working with the company involved in Mississippi's pilot.

Mississippi and South Carolina aren't the only states assessing new and different ways to combat contraband cell phones. New Jersey officials have started using a contraband cell phone detection device, which resembles an oversized walkie-talkie that can detect cellular signals, while other states use canines trained specifically to detect wireless devices.

There likely will be more to come in the next few months. Earlier this year, Congress tasked the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) with developing a plan to investigate and evaluate how wireless jamming of cell phone signals, detection of cell phone signals and other technologies might be used in federal and state prison facilities to stop inmates from cell phone posession and use. The NTIA enlisted the public, seeking comments and suggestions on various ways to solve the issue. "These comments will be carefully considered in our report," NTIA's spokespeople said, referencing a report on the issue that it expects to publish this fall.


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