The Senate Commerce Committee approved legislation Aug. 5 that would allow states to petition the Federal Communications Commission to operate wireless jamming devices in correctional facilities. Current law prohibits interference with wireless services, a safeguard intended to ensure the dependability of 911 emergency calls and to protect the rights of legitimate users of wireless services.
According to the bill, sponsored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the FCC in determining whether to grant a prison's jamming petition must consider, among other things, whether the jamming would interfere with emergency or public safety communications outside the prison's walls. The FCC would test and approve devices for use by correctional facilities.
"Imprisoned convicts are using contraband cell phones to coordinate murders, plot extortion schemes and run drug trafficking, credit card fraud and identity theft enterprises," Hutchison said in a statement. "Prisons are meant to stop the commission of crimes, but cell phones inside prisons mean business as usual for dangerous felons. With innocent lives on the line, Congress has a responsibility to make available all technologies that can prevent the illicit use of cell phones in prisons."
In 2008, Sen. John Whitmire of Texas was threatened by a death row inmate who used a smuggled cell phone to make threatening calls. The smuggled phone was later found and officers found 11 additional phones belonging to other death row inmates. That year, corrections systems across the country reported large numbers of confiscated phones. California reported nearly 3,000 contraband phones found with inmates, while Mississippi had nearly 2,000 and the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported confiscating more than 1,600 phones.
"While CTIA believes policy should favor noninterfering technologies, we appreciate Sen. Hutchison's willingness to redraft her bill to protect commercial and emergency wireless communications from interference caused by the use of jamming systems," wireless trade group CTIA's president and CEO, Steve Largent, said in a statement.
The legislation requires that the FCC conduct field testing of all devices submitted for approval and that approved devices operate at the lowest possible power output necessary to facilitate jamming and operate on a directionalized basis to limit the chance for interference. The measure also specifies that devices and systems approved by the FCC only be sold, marketed or operated by approved correctional facilities.