One of the first bills introduced in the 111th Congress was the Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009. The legislation would allow correctional institutions to permit the installation of jamming devices within a prison to prevent prison inmates from using smuggled cellular phones.
"This legislation will fight criminal enterprises behind bars and protect innocent victims and public officials from harassment and threats from criminals," bill sponsor Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said when introducing the legislation. "Recent cases of prisoners smuggling cell phones behind bars highlight the need to use current technology to prevent this ability."
But as the Senate Commerce Committee, on which Hutchison is the ranking member, prepares to hear the bill July 15, a number of public interest groups and consumer organizations claim Hutchison's legislation is wrong on the technology, wrong on the law and will open the door for commercial cell phone jammers, which are currently illegal.
"The proposal to end the more than 75-year ban on deliberately interfering with authorized radio communications in the United States would place commercial and public safety communications in this country at needless risk," nine public interest groups and consumer organizations wrote to the Commerce Committee July 14. "Not only do alternative means exist to address the problem of contraband cell phone use in prison, but the proposal to block cell phone use in prison by jamming will not achieve its objective of eliminating contraband cell phone use."
Harold Feld, legal director for Public Knowledge, which is spearheading the opposition to Hutchison's bill, said, "Jamming prison cell phones would jeopardize public safety because there is no way to jam only phones used by prisoners. All wireless communications could be shut down within a prison. Jamming won't work. You can beat jammers with a few pieces of tin foil."
Current law prevents interference with wireless services, a safeguard to ensure the dependability of 911 emergency calls and to protect the rights of legitimate users of wireless services. Hutchison's bill will allow the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons or a governor to submit a petition to the Federal Communications Commission requesting to operate a wireless jamming device in a particular correctional facility.
According to the bill language, the FCC, in determining whether to grant the petition, must consider, among other things, whether the jammer 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.
"History has shown that permitting the legal manufacture and sale of devices-even for limited purposes-will inevitably result in their becoming available on a mass consumer basis," the groups said in the letter. "Despite their availability in other countries, use of cell phone jammers in this country is forced underground and does little to interfere with commercial or public safety wireless use."
Howard Melamed, CEO of CellAntenna, maintains that cellular providers have the ability to reduce signal levels in the prison or increase the security of prepaid cards and cell phones to prevent illegal use of cell phones in prisons, but have elected to do nothing. In 2005, CellAntenna, of Coral Springs, Fla., mounted a judicial challenge to the constitutionality of the FCC restrictions, seeking to permit the use of cellular jamming devices by state and local governments and first responders.
After the U.S. Southern District Court of Florida in Miami ruled that it lacked jurisdiction, CellAntenna filed a petition for rulemaking before the FCC to allow state and local governments to use jamming equipment.
"If the carrier has the ability to prevent the illegal use of cell phones within their system, and refuses to do so, does not their inaction constitute an aiding and abetting of criminal activity?" Melamed said last year. "The FCC needs to step in and truly act in the best interests of the public, as their mandate from Congress clearly states."
CellAntenna claims it can block commercial cell phone signals in prisons, without interfering either with lawful cell phone use outside of prison or with public safety use in or outside of prison. The public interest groups have called CellAntenna's claims self-serving and lacking in actual proof.
"CellAntenna has sought to leverage a genuine public safety concern for its own profit by conducting unscientific and unauthorized demonstrations in various prisons," the groups stated in their July 14 letter. "While these 'demonstrations' allow CellAntenna to attract a fair amount of publicity, they do nothing to demonstrate the validity of CellAntenna's claims that it can affordably block contraband cell phone transmissions without interfering with public safety or legal wireless use."
Public Knowledge and the other groups contend cell phone providers already have the technology to allow only authorized handsets to connect to networks. Known as "white listing," it prevents any contraband phone from functioning without causing any interference to wireless systems. Alternatively, they argue, cell phone providers can log phone numbers of calls originating in prisons and submit these lists daily to appropriate prison officials to verify that no contraband handsets are operating in the prison.
"The total ban on deliberate interference with authorized wireless transmissions has allowed wireless technology to develop in the United States in a robust and economical fashion," the groups wrote. "Allowing the legal manufacture, importation and sale of jamming equipment will create a loophole that history shows the FCC will find impossible to close."