Prison Jam

By Glenn Fleishman July 27, 2009

What's the biggest problem facing prisons in the U.S.? Not shivs, but cell phones. Tens of thousands of cell phones are apparently in the hands of those in jail, none of them permitted. They're smuggled in through various means, including those I'd rather not mention on an all-ages site.

Prisoners use cell phones for nefarious purposes, but also just talking to loved ones and friends. While prisoners are allowed to make calls in many jails under specific circumstances, the telecom contractors that handle such calls charge absurdly high fees that are often split with the state or entity that operates the pokey.

The use of cell phones for "business" is the real problem, however. Those in jail with folks on the outside order hits, arrange breakouts, have other material smuggled in, or simply conduct routine business, remaining involved even as they're supposed to be cut out. (Wired covered this in depth a few months ago.)

California recovered 2,800 cell phones in prisons in 2008, twice the previous number, while 1,900 were found in Mississippi, and 1,600 in federal prisons. Prisoners may pay up to $1,000 for a phone, making it tempting for those employed at a prison or profiteers outside to get involved. (Oddly, California doesn't have a law on the books that makes it illegal to possess or smuggle in a cell phone, although there's certainly a general prohibition on bringing stuff in.)

Prison officials would like to use cell phone jammers, hardware that would produce signals over frequencies used by mobiles to prevent successful communication. Unfortunately for them, the Communications Act of 1934 prohibits this. And the cell phone industry lobby says it will interfere with legit communications.

Cellular operators were awarded (once free, now at auction or through negotiation) licenses for frequencies over which their networks operate. These licenses are exclusive for a given geographic area. National carriers own lots of licenses that allow them to operate networks across the U.S.

The 1934 act says, "No person shall willfully or maliciously interfere with or cause interference to any radio communications of any station licensed or authorized by or under this Act or operated by the United States Government." In this case, a "station" is a cellular base station used to send and receive voice and data calls from and to cell handsets and other cellular gear.

This clause was put into place to provide assurance back in the early days of radio that having invested money into, say, a radio station or other exclusive network purpose, that there were teeth in making sure that a competitor or ne'er-do-well didn't foul things up.

(Interference itself is a funny concept. It doesn't really exist. Interference is a function of a receiver that can't discriminate well enough between signals arriving from different locations. Digital technology has vastly improved signal differentiation, but spectrum policy remains mostly unchanged.)

Wardens thus can't go to the drugstore, buy a jammer, and slap it up. Movie theaters have thought about this as well, to make the experience better for patrons, but have been similarly constrained.

Thus came into being the Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009 , introduced in the House and Senate in January 2009. The bill would allow the federal prisons director and the chief executive of each state to apply for waivers to use jamming devices certified under a process the FCC would create that could disable cellular device in a very controlled area. Meanwhile, state corrections agencies last week joined to petition the FCC for an exemption even if the law isn't passed.

Wired magazine says without elaboration that tinfoil wrapped around the phone would disable jamming, but others with technical background explain that the tinfoil would have to be attached to a grounding wire and be wrapped around certain internal components and the inside part of the antenna. Even then, it might not allow the phone to resist jamming.

The CTIA, the cell industry's trade group, thinks prison jamming is a terrible idea because it could interfere with legitimate communications. That's true, but that presupposes a system that's poorly designed. Many prisons are far from populations, but others are right on top of residential areas. (My in-laws moved to a Washington town that greets you with a prison as you exit the highway.)

The cell industry doesn't want to have less reliable service, and they don't want anything that would prevent them from collecting your pennies and dollars in an efficient manner.

The industry proposal is a white list, that would allow only approved phones to make calls originating from prisons. There was no mention of a timetable, cost, or process to make this happen, of course, just like much of the policy, privacy, and portability vaporware promises the industry has made in the past.

In the end, it boils down to safety. Unlike the fake security theater in airports that mostly ensures that we have cold feet, jamming cell phones in prison would disrupt gang and organized crime activity, and reinforce the punitive nature of the kalaboose. We emprison far too many people in the U.S., but jamming could actually add to deterrence.
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