Trying to Keep Cell Phones Out of Prison

Trying to Keep Cell Phones Out of Prison

Prison authorities used to have almost complete control over an inmate’s ability to communicate with the outside world. By checking their mail and parceling out telephone access — at scheduled times on easily and legally tapped landlines — communication for inmates was difficult and often expensive . Today, however, as cell phones proliferate , they are reaching into every corner of the planet — including jail cells. Authorities in India recently confiscated more than 600 cell phones in a prison in the state of Gujarat. Not even high-security areas like Texas’ death row are exempt.

Cell-phone access can mean chaos. Brazilian officials say cell phones are used to organize and plan widespread riots that are endemic to their crowded prisons; Canadian prosecutors said a notorious drug kingpin continued business behind bars using his cell phone; and a man awaiting trial on a homicide charge in Maryland has been accused of arranging via cell phone the murder of a key witness in the case. The examples go on and on, some bordering on the absurd. The mother of a prisoner in Texas even called authorities to complain about her son’s bad cell-phone reception in jail.

Most prison cell-phone incidents, however, raise serious security concerns. Texas death-row inmate Richard Tabler allegedly used a smuggled cell phone in recent weeks to make threatening calls to Texas state senator John Whitmire, chairman of a key criminal jurisprudence committee. The calls were among 2,800 made in just one month from cell phones used by Tabler and nine of his fellow death-row inmates. After Whitmire alerted state prison authorities to the calls, the high-security East Texas prison was locked down and searched. Authorities found Tabler’s phone hidden in the ceiling above a shower. They also found 11 other phones in the sweep. Last week, another search led to the discovery of two SIMM cards in a Bible belonging to death-row inmate Hank Skinner. He denied having a phone, but an X-ray revealed one hidden in his rectum.

Even before Tabler’s notorious calls, Texas prison authorities were investigating 19 cases of death-row cell-phone use and 700 cases throughout the entire state system. Tabler’s mother and sister have been arrested on felony charges for buying cell-phone minutes and equipment for him. But it is not just family members who help smuggle the phones. Prison authorities say guards have been paid $2,000 — more than a month’s wages — to bring in contraband cell phones. Small cell phones and postage-stamp-size SIMM cards are easy to smuggle into prisons in body cavities or simply by throwing them over a fence inside a ball, says Josh Gelinas, a spokesman for South Carolina’s prison system, where more than 1,000 phones have been confiscated this year.

Some states, like Florida and New Jersey, have passed new tough laws making cell-phone-smuggling a felony. They are also using cell-phone-sniffing dogs to hunt down the contraband and assigning guards to do metal-detecting wand searches for hidden phones. But Gelinas said South Carolina’s prison system is “short-funded” and cannot afford to divert manpower to searches. “It makes much more sense to use the cell-phone jamming technology that’s available,” Gelinas says. The problem for state and local prison administrators is that jamming cell-phone signals is illegal and available only to federal agencies under strictly controlled guidelines. Anyone violating the law, including state and local law enforcement, can be heavily fined by the Federal Government.

South Carolina is hoping to persuade federal authorities to allow cell-phone jamming. Last week prison officials invited CellAntenna Corp. to demonstrate such technology for state and federal lawmakers. The prison system also invited representatives from the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Communications Commission , which regulates jamming. The demonstration, however, drew opposition from the cell-phone industry’s lobbying arm, CTIA — The Wireless Association, which sent a letter to the FCC urging the agency to block CellAntenna from “brazenly” violating federal law. The association’s chief lobbyist, Steve Largent, a retired professional football player and former Congressman, said jamming could interfere with emergency phone calls and public safety communications. But the demonstration went forward. CellAntenna used a suitcase-size device to block cell-phone signals in a large auditorium, showing how a defined area could be jammed.

The debate over jamming by state and local governments has been presented to the FCC before. Both CellAntenna, a Miami-based company, and CTIA have introduced petitions seeking rule changes, and now the state of Texas has filed a request for clarification on the issue, given its recent problems with inmates. Howard Melamed, president of CellAntenna, has been waging battles in the courts and at the FCC against jamming for more than a decade. Melamed says he has no interest in lifting current laws to allow individuals or private enterprises like theaters and restaurants to install jamming devices, but he does believe that state and local law enforcement should have access to it. But CTIA spokesman Joe Farren disagrees. “You are talking about potentially blocking emergency communications within and potentially outside a large structure,” he says. Farren insists that “this is a contraband issue” and, as such, prisons should utilize searches and other methods to find phones rather than “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”

Speaking to TIME from Panama, where he was on a sales trip to Latin American prisons, Melamed said CellAntenna is selling jamming technology worldwide, sometimes with the help of promotional trips arranged by the U.S. Department of Commerce. He calls it ironic that one branch of the Federal Government is promoting jamming while another is blocking it. Across the globe, more and more countries are buying jamming equipment. Britain has embarked on a major study to address the issue. Given a new U.S. Administration and anticipated changes at the top of the FCC, it is unlikely that the dueling petitions before the agency will move at anything approaching warp speed, despite mounting pressure from state prison authorities. Most observers expect this debate to land in the lap of Congress. Meanwhile, prison authorities will continue with their cavity searches.