Contraband Cellphones in Prisons
The illegal use of wireless phones in prisons is a serious problem. The wireless industry and corrections community share the same goal of stopping the use of contraband cellphones by prisoners.
The fundamental issue is that wireless phones are a contraband problem, not a telecommunications policy issue. Wireless carriers support attacking the underlying supply of and demand for contraband cellphones in prisons through lawful and currently available solutions, such as cell detection and managed access technologies. These non-interfering technologies have been successfully demonstrated and deployed across the country.
CTIA and our members also support Cellphone Contraband Act (S. 1749), which would punish inmates, and anyone who supplies them with a device, while in prison. In August 2010, this bill became law.
Despite the legal and proven technologies such as cell detection and managed access, some believe the solution is signal jamming technology that would block cellphone and other radio communications. However, this technology is illegal in the U.S. With the limited exception of authorized use by the federal government and its agencies, the operation of signal jamming technology stands in direct violation of Section 333 of the Communications Act. Section 333 provides that “no person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communication.” Therefore, the wireless industry urges the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to initiate aggressive enforcement actions against those who manufacture or market devices to interfere with wireless telephone and other radio communications, and deny pending and future requests to “test” devices that would violate the Communications Act.
There are a variety of problems that signal jamming technology can cause, including causing harmful interference for public safety, first responders, wireless carriers and our mobile customers. The real world use of jamming equipment shows that, for all but the most remote facilities, people simply walking or driving by a facility with an activated jammer could suffer degraded or disrupted wireless service. The nation’s leading public safety organizations have expressed concern about deploying jammers at correctional facilities due to the likelihood of impairing first responders’ and consumers’ use of their wireless devices in emergency situations. This is precisely reason Congress limited jammers to only authorized federal users.
With support from carriers across the country, demonstrations of alternative technologies, such as managed access and cell detection, are continuously proving that they can prevent inmates from using contraband phones while ensuring public safety and consumers have service to their devices. In September 2010, the Mississippi Department of Corrections deployed a managed access system with tremendous success. The South Carolina Department of Corrections announced in October 2010 that it would test a similar kind of technology.
CTIA and the wireless industry vehemently oppose prisoners having access to contraband phones, but we support legal – and proven – technologies such as cell detection and managed access.
- The Use of Signal Jamming Equipment Can – and Has – Caused Harmful Interference to Wireless Service for Public Safety First Responders, Wireless Carriers & Customers. The use of illegal devices – specifically wireless jammers – should remain contraband since we have seen numerous examples of interference around the world and in the U.S. In Brazil, a jamming device in a prison knocked out wireless service to 200,000 nearby residents. In India, a jammer at a prison disrupted service to people living within a five kilometer radius. In May 2010 in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a single jamming device in a residential apartment caused major disruptions for the Coast Guard, the FCC, the National Communications System and commercial wireless providers. Effects from this single jammer extended more than a mile from the apartment and disrupted signals throughout the area. These included problems with GPS equipment and navigation aids (including those used by the Coast Guard and potentially the FAA) and timing synchronization based on GPS at wireless base stations were disrupted. Numerous CMRS base station sites were unable to make voice and data communications work, which meant excessive blocked and dropped calls. Wireless providers and first responders that were relying on GPS for 911 calls’ location information were adversely affected. While the FCC was able to confiscate the jammer, this incident highlights an issue of critical importance to both the wireless industry and the federal government: the use of wireless jammers and the devastating impact on commercial and public safety wireless services cannot and should not be tolerated. As American consumers and public safety officials increasingly rely on wireless communications, the ability of wireless networks to operate without harmful interference becomes even more vital. Wireless jammers represent a major threat to wireless networks and everyone else who relies on wireless communications.
- Lawful Cellphone Detection Systems, Managed Access and Other Technologies are Superior Solutions to Signal Jamming Equipment. Like a scalpel, lawful cell phone detection technologies provide prison officials and law enforcement the opportunity to identify the location of a contraband cell phone, track its use, retrieve the device and prosecute those in possession. Cell phone detection technology also can be used to identify how – and by whom – these contraband devices are being smuggled into facilities. In addition, managed access systems allow corrections officials to prevent inmates from accessing carrier networks without impacting service for legitimate wireless users. Detection devices and managed access solutions don't block legal wireless subscribers or public safety officials from using their devices. Such technologies are cost-effective alternatives to jamming that can be – and are being – deployed today.
- Improved Deterrence is Key to Stopping the Supply of Contraband Wireless Devices. Increasing the penalties against those smuggling wireless devices for a profit is an important step to help halt the supply of contraband mobile devices. State laws should make it absolutely clear that providing a wireless phone to an inmate, or the possession of a phone by an inmate, is an offense that will be dealt with severe punishment and hefty penalties.
Last Updated: March 2011