A bill introduced by Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Jim DeMint, R-S.C., would enable the Federal Communications Commission to permit prisons and local jails to install cell phone jamming equipment. The bill passed the Senate Commerce Committee in August, but has not yet been approved by the full Senate. Meanwhile, corrections officials are investigating other technologies that can help reduce or prevent cell phone use among inmates.
Prisons and jails are the main proponents of cell phone jamming equipment because smuggled phones have been used by inmates to continue criminal activities, even for arranging for murders from inside prison walls. However, a test of a cell phone-jamming device at Mount Spokane High School in Spokane, Wash., earlier this year illustrated one of the problems that critics say cell phone jamming would create.
The school wanted to keep students focused on schoolwork, so it installed equipment that blocked cell phone signals inside school buildings. "It kept the students from making calls or sending text messages, but it also jammed the radio of the school resource deputy," says Sgt. Dave Reagan of the Spokane County Sheriff's Office. "[The school] has discontinued the jamming."
Brian Josef, director of regulatory affairs for CTIA, the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry, cites the experience at Mount Spokane when he talks about why he opposes the proposed federal law that would allow prisons and jails to jam cell phones.
"It's against the law, and there are very good reasons for that," Josef says. "It can cause interference."
The Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correction hosted an exposition in September of products that can detect cell phones.
Six vendors attended the event, including one that demonstrated a product designed to scan all cell phone bands in North America. When a phone is detected, its location is calculated based on sensors, and the results are displayed on an investigator's workstation.
The new technologies are intriguing, says Devon Brown, director of the District of Columbia Department of Corrections, which had a representative at the exposition. But, the department remains supportive of changing federal law to allow prisons and jails to jam cell phones within the geographical boundaries of their. "[Detection technologies] should be used in conjunction with jamming," Brown says. "The ideal situation would be to combine the technologies. They should be tools in an arsenal."