Contraband Cellphones in Prisons

Key Points

  • Wireless devices should never be in the hands of prisoners, but this is a contraband problem, not a telecommunications policy issue. Regardless, CTIA supports increasing the penalties against those smuggling wireless devices for a profit as well as making sure state laws are clear that providing a wireless phone to an inmate, or the possession of a phone by an inmate, is a serious offense that will be dealt with severe punishment and hefty penalties. We supported the Cellphone Contraband Act (S. 1749), which became law and punishes inmates with a device, as well as anyone who supplies them with one.  
  • If mobile devices are found in prison, lawful detection systems and managed access technologies should be used to provide prison officials and law enforcement the opportunity to identify the location of the contraband cellphone, track its use, retrieve the device and prosecute those in possession. Cellphone 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, including first responders.
  • With support from carriers across the country, demonstrations of alternative technologies such as managed access and cell detection are continuously proving they can prevent inmates from using contraband phones while ensuring public safety and consumers have service to their devices.
    • In the first month of operation, the Mississippi Department of Corrections deployed a managed access system at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, which blocked 325,000 calls and message attempts.
    • In Texas, a trial of a managed access system at the McConnell Unit resulted in hundreds of unauthorized calls and texts being intercepted.1  
    • The South Carolina Department of Corrections is also testing a similar kind of technology.

CTIA Position

The illegal use of wireless phones in prisons is a serious problem, and the wireless industry and corrections community agree that the use of contraband cellphones by prisoners must be stopped.

Thanks to numerous testings of legal technologies such as cell detection and managed access, it’s clear that these are the preferred and effective tools to stop contraband cellphones in prisons. Yet there are some who 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.

  • 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 one 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.

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 the reason Congress limited jammers to only authorized federal users.

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 potentially many others who rely on wireless communications.

1Anita Hassan, High-tech system stumps inmates with cellphones, Houston Chronicle (Mar. 25, 2013), available at http://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/High-tech-system-stumps-inmates-with-cells-4380816.php.
Last Updated: November 2013

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