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Solutions to Stop Use of Contraband Cell Phones by Prisoners

December 31st, 2010 by Jamie Barnett - Chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau

A few weeks ago a cell phone was found in Charles Manson’s California prison cell. Corcoran, California Prison authorities confirmed that Manson had been in contact with people outside the prison walls, and for some time.  Just last month, Georgia inmates are reported to have used them to coordinate a work strike across a number of the state’s prisons.

A cell phone these days is apparently something the average American cannot live without.  And, it seems, neither can the nation’s inmates. This is a major public safety concern. Today, prisons across the nation are reportedly confiscating thousands of cell phones from inmates, yet this contraband is still being used by inmates daily.

Cell phones in the hands of prisoners present a serious threat to public safety.  Despite federal and some state laws prohibiting their possession, today, thousands of prisoners nationwide are in possession of contraband cell phones and are conducting illegal enterprises despite serving time for other crimes.  An inmate’s illegal activity may involve discussions with fellow criminals outside the prison walls about drug trafficking, money laundering or intimidating witnesses – or worse, plotting their murders.  This is a national problem that has been of concern for state and local law enforcement and department of corrections officials for sometime.  And, it’s a problem the FCC is committed to help solve.

Well, some argue, just jam the cell phones.  However, that’s not easy, not preferable, and not legal.  The Communications Act of 1934 broadly prohibits jamming devices, including cell phone jammers, and the FCC cannot waive this statutory prohibition.  There is a very good public safety reason for the prohibition of jammers.  The use of jammers in prisons to stop the use of contraband cell phones by inmates could interfere with police, fire and emergency medical communications.  Already, there has been increased FCC enforcement against illegal jammers that have interfered with public safety communications and GPS signals.  Interference from jammers is likely because public safety radio communications operate in frequency bands adjacent to those used for commercial mobile communications.  National public safety groups have stated their concern about vital communications being disrupted as a result of illegal jamming.

Moreover, jammers could disrupt or prevent authorized calls, including 9-1-1 calls, from civilians living, working and travelling in proximity to a prison using jammers.  Public safety groups estimate that 50-75 percent of all calls to 9-1-1 centers are made from cell phones. We expect that this trend will continue to grow with more than 270 million commercial wireless customers nationwide today.  The FCC is committed to making sure that these calls are not disrupted by illegal jamming activities.

Last week, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) submitted its report – Contraband Cell Phones in Prisons: Possible Wireless Technology Solutions available at Contraband Cell Phones in Prisons, Possible Wireless Technology Solutions  – to Congress.  The report, written in coordination with the FCC, the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the National Institute of Justice, investigates and evaluates wireless jamming, detection, managed network access, and other technologies that might be used to prevent contraband cell phone use by prison inmates.  The report provides an overview of the characteristics and capabilities of various technologies.  NTIA finds that:

Prison officials should have access to technology to disrupt prison cell phone use in a manner that protects nearby public safety and Federal Government spectrum users from harmful disruption of vital services, and preserves the rights of law-abiding citizens to enjoy the benefits of the public airwaves without interference. 

As detailed in the report, the FCC has taken quick action to defeat contraband cell phone use in prisons that does not involve the use of cell phone jamming devices.  There are new and emerging technologies now available that work.  One such technology the FCC calls “contraband cell phone capture,” which is designed to capture cell phones calls inside the prison, analyze whether the calls are from legitimate devices or not, and prevent completion of calls from unauthorized cell phones, in effect making those cell phones useless to inmates.  Prison administrators are able to do this without affecting the legitimate use of cell phones by prison authorities within the prison and by the public living or working in close proximity to the facility to make 911 emergency or commercial calls.  

The technology for contraband cellphone capture can be configured to detect the approximate location within cellblocks of contraband cell phones thus allowing for search and seizure.  Oftentimes, other contraband is swept up in these searches.  When operated under appropriate court ordered warrants, detection devices can collect information about inmates’ use of contraband cell phones, thus aiding in the interdiction of ongoing criminal enterprises being conducted behind bars.  The technology works very effectively, capturing inmate cell phone calls from the very beginning. In fact, this past September Mississippi became the first state in the Nation to deploy this technology at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.  In the first month alone, more than 216,000 unauthorized calls were intercepted, and the rate of attempts showed a sharp decline once inmates realized those calls would not go through.  Other states – Maryland, South Carolina, California, and Texas – are evaluating call capture systems, as well.  In the end, prisoners would no longer have incentive to use contraband cell phones because they simply won’t work behind prison walls.

The FCC stands ready to work with our federal partners, lawmakers, states, counties and cities on this important issue and can assist them with navigating the regulatory landscape as they move forward with legal ways to deal with this issue.  The goal is to find and implement the most effective and precise technological options to defeat contraband cell phone use in prisons as quickly as possible without adopting technologies that could endanger the public.

6 Responses to “Solutions to Stop Use of Contraband Cell Phones by Prisoners”

  1. Guest says:

    So what is the status of the Petition submitted to the FCC on Aug 6, 2009 by 30 states asking for a rulemaking on jamming cell phones inside prisons?

  2. Guest says:

    From Susan McLean, FCC

    Re: Petitions

    Thank you for your question. The petition from the South Carolina Department of Corrections, which was co-signed by corrections officials of state and regional prison systems from 32 states and the District of Columbia, is under review.

  3. Guest says:

    From Susan McLean, FCC

    Re: Micro Cell

    The type of system you have described, generally referred to as a call capture system or managed access system, is the type of innovative approach being offered today by several companies and in use on an operational or trial basis by a number of state prison administrations. NTIA’s report provides a good overview of these systems. These companies work closely with the local cell phone providers to ensure that citizens working and living outside the prison facility are not negatively impacted by the call capture system and to ensure that the call capture system does not interfere with emergency communications, such as calls to 9-1-1 and law enforcement activities and response.

  4. Pressurized Walls Manhattan says:

    The use of contraband cellphones by inmates should be stopped by all possible means. I don't see why inmates are still able to possess these cellphones despite the prohibition of all state prisons of such possession. Clearly, something fishy is going on behind the <a href="http://www.allweekwalls.com">walls</a> of state prisons.

  5. Larry says:

    Why not utilized LTI's new glass which Design Supply's out of KC MO markets that blocks transmissions and not worry about expending a lot of money and time for towers and monthly service charges. Larry

  6. Guest says:

    Why not put a micro cell in the prisons? All cell phones would be directed to that base station (due to the way cell phones select which towers to connect to) and the base station could be programmed to block all phones except those that are registered. In case of emergencies the base station can be programmed to have a "emergency mode" which on one command would allow all calls. You might have have some "leakage" depending on how close adjoining cell towers are but the wireless carrier can help "detune" them.

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