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Legislation Regarding Cell Phone Jamming in Prisons Has Industry Concerned

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By Alex Tcherkassky, Reporter, BroadbandCensus.com

WASHINGTON, July 16, 2009 – The legalization of cellular telephone jamming technology in prisons was discussed Wednesday before the Senate Commerce Committee in response to Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s S. 251 introduced earlier this year.

Cell phone jamming technology is currently illegal under the Communications Act. Hutchison, the ranking Republican member on the panel, seeks to change that.

Among the witnesses was Texas State Senator John Whitmire. Whitmire received death threats after a death row inmate’s mother and sister were arrested for smuggling a cell phone to an inmate.

Inspector General John Moriarty of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice also supports S. 251.

Moriarty said that criminals are getting more and more creative when it comes to getting phones to prisoners. Add to that the financial motivators – a sting operation found a prisoner willing to pay $400 for a phone versus only $50 for heroin – and, he said, cell phones will continue to make their way into prisons.

He said jamming was “a very valuable tool that we need to put in our tool kit.”

Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary Maynard agreed, saying that as cell phone technology advances “we need to fight technology with technology.”

The cell phone industry was represented by wireless association CTIA President Steve Largent, and Richard Mirgon from the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials.

Both expressed concern that jamming technology is ineffective and that it cannot effectively stop cell phone transmissions without adversely affecting legitimate use outside of the targeted prison. They were also concerned that jammers could interfere with public safety channels and first responders.

Specifically, Largent said that jammer technology being used at urban and suburban facilities where commercial areas and major transportation routes are directly adjacent to the prison. He supported this claim with aerial photos of a dozen prison facilities. Additionally, he said, jamming technology used in South America and India led to the unintentional interruption of the service of 200,000 customers.

Largent said that cell detection and limited access technology would be more effective solutions and that while CTIA supports the spirit of Bill 251 it cannot support the use of jamming technology. Mirgon said that if jamming technology is legalized, it must be exhaustively tested to ensure that it doesn’t interfere with public safety or wireless 911 services.

While S. 251 does not call for an outright legalization of jamming technology, it allows for prisons to apply for a waiver from the ban and provides for Federal Communications Commission testing and certification of jamming technology.

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