Jamming prison cell phones threatens public safety, groups tell Senate

Today, the Senate Commerce Committee is holding a hearing on legislation (S. 251) to allow corrections officials to jam cellular transmissions in prisons. Reclaim the Media joined Public Knowledge and seven other public interest groups and consumer organizations, telling the Committee that the legislation would cause more serious problems than it would solve. Read our letter to the committee (pdf).

"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," said Harold Feld, legal director for Public Knowledge, adding, "Jamming won't work. You can beat jammers with a few pieces of tin foil. We have better ways of dealing with the problem." Feld also warned: "Once such a jamming device is built, it will inevitably become available on a wider basis. Who knows what chaos that will cause?"

According to the letter, "Only a complete prohibition on cell phone jammers has successfully limited the sale and deployment of them in this country. 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." The threat of widespread jammers is one reason commercial and public safety licensees oppose the attempts of one company, CellAntenna, to deploy the technology.

The letter noted that there is no reason to believe that only signals from certain phones can be blocked: "As spectrum experts have explained, jamming contraband cell phone signals without jamming authorized communications presents an extremely difficult engineering challenge. Cell phone signals use many bands, often proximate to or shared with public safety operations."

Public Knowledge has posted a brief video on the issue.

As alternatives, the groups suggested instead beefing up prison security to make certain prisoners don t get telephones and making certain that telephone rates for prisoners are reasonable.

In a separate letter to Senator Maria Cantwell, Reclaim the Media is encouraging the committee to look at the related issue of prisoners and detainees' lack of access to affordable phone services. As described in the recent report Criminal Charges: Excessive Prison Phone Rates Take a Toll on Innocent Families, exorbitant long-distance rates and privately negotiated service contracts for prison telephony cut access between prisoners' families and their incarcerated spouses, parents or children. This harms innocent families, and denies prisoners crucial resources for self-evaluation and self-improvement while incarcerated. A Wired Magazine article notes that these high rates are a key motivator for prisoners to smuggle in contraband phones.

The push to allow cellphone jamming in prison systems comes from a petition signed by corrections officials in 28 states, including Eldon Vail, Washington State Secretary of Corrections.

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You have written a compelling piece but I do have one question. Why on earth are prisoners allowed access to cell phones in the first place? This seems a bit odd.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey