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2009-08-13 digital edition

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2009-08-13 / General Stories

Cell Phones in Prisons Mean Business as Usual for Convicted Criminals

By U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

Our nation faces a growing threat from crime syndicates and other dangerous felons that operate inside the very facilities meant to keep them and their illicit activities off our streets and out of our communities. Imprisoned convicts coordinate murders, plot extortion schemes, and run drug trafficking, credit card fraud, and identity theft enterprises. These dangerous operations are increasingly facilitated by contraband cell phones smuggled to inmates. This problem is growing at such an alarming rate that it threatens not only the lives of the security professionals who work in these American prisons, but the general public as well.

In 2008, correctional facilities across the nation reported startling numbers of confiscated phones. For example, the federal prison system located more than 1,600 contraband communications devices, and in Texas alone, there were 1,162 cases. This year, there are already nearly 700 illicit cell phone cases in Texas. These numbers are even more disturbing because they represent only the phones that were actually found.

Prisoners are using increasingly sophisticated methods to smuggle phones into correctional facilities and then conceal them from authorities. A single phone is often shared among many inmates, and just a few phones inside a prison can lead to coordinated attacks both inside and outside prison walls. And we have seen how effective these tools are for spreading violence. Escape attempts coordinated by contraband cell phone have resulted in the deaths of corrections officers. Prisoners have also used them to intimidate witnesses and local officials and to carry out assassination attempts. In Maryland, a witness for an upcoming trial was gunned down in his front yard after a prisoner gave the murderer his address from a cell phone. At a recent Senate hearing, Texas state senator John Whitmire shared an account of how he was contacted by an inmate with an illicit phone, and how he and his family were subsequently subjected to harassment and death threats.

While the danger of inmates armed with cell phones is apparent, prisons are struggling to keep pace with the problem by using traditional security measures, such as trained dogs, handheld scanners, and metal detectors. We must provide corrections officers with a comprehensive solution that includes the tools necessary to prevent the use of phones when they evade detection and discovery. To that end, law enforcement officers, corrections professionals, governors, and others working to address this problem have asked Congress and the Federal Communications Commission for authority to use cell phone signal jamming equipment.

Federal law prohibits the use of jamming devices in all but a few cases. Prohibiting intentional interference serves an important purpose because unregulated jamming technology could hamper commercial wireless operations and public safety communications. That is why we must have a sensible process to review devices and provide protections designed to minimize the chance of interference before permitting the use of jamming equipment.

In January, I introduced bipartisan legislation which allows correctional facilities to seek a conditional waiver from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to operate a wireless jamming device. The Safe Prisons Communications Act creates a framework for the FCC to test and approve jamming equipment and to review applications from corrections facilities seeking to install cell phone jammers. Most importantly, to ensure the integrity of wireless networks for public safety and commercial wireless providers, and minimize any chance of interference, the legislation outlines the coordinated efforts from all stakeholders, including prisons and the telecommunication providers.

Some have suggested that there are alternatives to jamming technology. But many of these technologies present problems for corrections departments because of their high cost, or because they may be useful at detecting phones, but not preventing their use. With lives on the line, Congress has a responsibility to ensure that all available technologies that can prevent the actual use of cell phones in prisons are available to the hard-working men and women on the front lines.

Prisons are meant to stop the commission of crimes, but cell phones inside prisons mean business as usual for dangerous felons. America's dedicated law enforcement and corrections professionals need this important capability, and they are counting on Congress to help them meet this challenge. I urge all of my colleagues to join me in this important fight to protect the innocent from the convicted when this legislation comes to the Senate floor for a vote this fall.

Kay Bailey Hutchison is the senior U.S. Senator from Texas and the Ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

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