Behind the bars

Drugs and weapons are not the only contraband found during a cell toss; cellular phones also run rampant through our correctional system - posing more trouble than a dropped call


     "While there is equipment to locate the cell phone, it's not very accurate and at the same time it doesn't solve the entire problem," adds Melamed.

     Even with front door metal detectors, the problem continues to persist; Gelinas feels that South Carolina has eliminated other alternatives to be successful in combating the issue. "We feel jamming is really the only effective method for our prison system and most likely others as well," he says. "We simply don't have the manpower to be everywhere at once. No prison system does."

     However, amid much debate, jamming cellular signals within a prison is a violation of the Communications Act of 1934.

     The Act (47 U.S.C. 301, 302a, 333) prohibits any person from willfully or maliciously interfering with the radio communications of any station licensed or authorized under the Act, or operated by the U.S. government.

     Critics of this Act weigh on two opposite levels of a balance regarding the legitimacy of cellular signal jamming technology. One side states that, apart from the unlawful process of jamming, blocking the signal would prevent public emergency calls such as 911 and law enforcement radio communications. Until governmental action is taken, the jamming of the signal remains illegal.

     However, such action remains to be a lucrative and attractive solution. Because illegal cell phone communications continue, Camp continues to voice concern for the safety of staff, the public, and law enforcement — while recognizing the need for citizens to be able to make 911 emergency calls from areas just outside prisons. "We are quite frankly baffled that there is not universal support for the use of this newly developed and tested cell phone jamming technology in prisons," he says.

     He continues, "It's not just an issue for prison staff, where the consequences of cell phone usage are harmful, it also concerns us because the public can be put at great risk if these cell phones are used to plot an escape."

     "The introduction of additional contraband is going to be made much more difficult because of what we already have implemented at the front door," agrees Gelinas. "Once we eliminate the use of cell phones, [inmates] won't be able to coordinate throw-overs or introduction of contraband as precisely as they can."

A demonstration

     In an attempt to see the technology in action, a few correctional facilities have scheduled a demonstration. At the time of this writing, South Carolina has been the only state to complete such an event — Texas and Washington, D.C., chose to cancel.

     Today, months after the completed demonstration in South Carolina, interested parties are now examining the event's happenings. "In this example," explains Camp, "they were able to block transmissions within a building inside the prison, and yet you could step outside that same building and still use your cell phone."

     Further demonstrations, though cancelled, were intended to show similar results. For an early January demonstration, the Federal Communication Commission offered a temporary permission to conduct the demonstration for the Washington, D.C., Department of Corrections. A letter to D.C. Corrections, written January 2, originally granted this "temporary authority" to conduct a 30-minute demonstration of the jamming equipment on January 8. In the letter the FCC acknowledges the interest to investigate the technology: "We agree that the proposed demonstration of equipment designed to prevent prisoners' unauthorized wireless telecommunications will benefit public safety. We find that the prosed demonstration will be narrowly tailored to limit impact on authorized wireless operations, while maximizing public safety benefits."

  • Enhance your experience.

    Thank you for your regular readership of and visits to Officer.com. To continue viewing content on this site, please take a few moments to fill out the form below and register on this website.

    Registration is required to help ensure your access to featured content, and to maintain control of access to content that may be sensitive in nature to law enforcement.