Senate Commerce Committee Approves Bill to Allow Cell Phone Jamming by State Prisons

August 5, 2009. The Senate Commerce Committee (SCC) amended and approved S 251 [LOC | WW], the "Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009". Sen. Kay Hutchison (R-TX) is the sponsor.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) was the only original cosponsor of S 251. However, there are now a total of 14 sponsors, including Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Sen. Jim Thune (R-SD), Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT), Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sen. Jon Cornyn (R-TX), Sen. Mark Pryor (D-AR), and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK).

The companion bill in the House is HR 560 [LOC | WW], introduced on January 15, 2009, by Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX), Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). It now has 44 mostly Republican sponsors.

This bill, which originates from the Texas delegation, would enable state prisons to petition the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for waivers allowing them to operate radio frequency jamming devices at state prisons for the purpose of interfering with prisoners' use of cell phones.

The bill is supported by prison officials. It is opposed by some public safety officials, who fear interference with their communications, and commercial wireless companies, who fear interference with the wireless communications of their customers near prisons.

On July 15, the SCC held a hearing titled "Contraband Cell Phones in Correctional Facilities: Public Safety Impact and the Potential Implications of Jamming Technologies".

The SCC approved a draft amendment in the nature of a substitute at its August 5 business meeting.

Bill Summary. Currently, 47 U.S.C. § 333 provides, in full, that "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 chapter or operated by the United States Government."

The bill as introduced was short. It would have amended § 333 to provide that "The Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons or the chief executive officer of a State (or his or her designee) may, by petition, request that the Commission grant a waiver ... to permit the installation of devices for the sole purpose of preventing, jamming, or interfering with wireless communications within the geographic boundaries of a specified prison, penitentiary, or correctional facility under his or her jurisdiction". (Parentheses in original.)

The bill as introduced also provided that waivers may have a term of up to ten years. It also required the FCC to write rules which provide, among other things, that prisons "operate the device at the lowest possible transmission power necessary to prevent, jam, or interfere with wireless communications by inmates" and that "operate the device in a manner that does not interfere with wireless communications that originate and terminate outside the area of the prison".

On August 5 the SCC approved a 21 page substitute version. It adds a new Section 333A to Title 47 regarding "Jamming Unauthorized Wireless Devices in Correctional Facilities". It also requirea the FCC to promulgate regulations "governing the use of jamming systems in correctional facilities", and regulations "establishing criteria for certification for the manufacture, sale, importation, and interstate shipment of devices that may be used" for such jamming.

The bill as approved provides that the FCC "may authorize the supervisory authority of a correctional facility to operate a jamming system within the correctional facility to prevent, jam, or otherwise interfere with unauthorized wireless communications within the facility by individuals held in the facility." The FCC would be required to give notice and an opportunity to be heard to public safety agencies and commercial mobile service providers. If a waiver is granted, the bill would then allow public safety agencies to inspect the jamming facilities. The bill would also require the shutdown of jamming in the event of a public safety incident at the prison.

July 15 Hearing. Witnesses and Senators who support the bill stated at the hearing that convicted criminals, and persons in pretrial detention obtain cell phones illegally, and then use them to intimidate witnesses, harass crime victims, arrange murders, coordinate escapes and attacks on prison guards, and conduct other criminal activities.

One critic of the bill, Richard Mirgon, President of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International, said the prison jamming technologies could be diverted to illegal use. However, Steve Largent, head of the CTIA, and another critic of the bill, responded that there is already an illegal market for jamming devices.

Largent argued that prison jamming would interfere with nearby wireless communications, especially when prisons are located in urban areas. John Whitmire and John Moriarity, two witnesses from the state of Texas, stated that the prisons where cell phones constitute a problem are mostly located in rural areas.

Whitmire also said that Texas is already using prison searches, pat downs, and dogs, but still has a cell phone problem.

Moriarity added that Texas has made it a felony to possess a cell phone in prison. He elaborated that the problem is that cell phones are very small, and SIM cards even smaller. He said that SIM cards enable many prisoners to share one phone. There are easy to smuggle, especially in body cavities. Moreover, prison guards are paid little, and are sometimes bribed to smuggle cell phones.

Largent argued that prison jamming in other countries, including India, has led to interference with outside communications. He urged the use of other techniques, including cell phone detection. Moriarity responded that Texas does this, and it is both expensive and ineffective.

Largent also called for "managed access" and "airport style security checks" at prisons.

Steve Largent stated in a release issued on August 5 that "While CTIA believes policy should favor non-interfering technologies, we appreciate Senator Hutchison’s willingness to redraft her bill to protect commercial and emergency wireless communications from interference caused by the use of jamming systems. We are in complete alignment with the Senator on the need to prohibit wireless access by those who aren't supposed to have it, and we commend her for the attention she has brought to this important public safety issue."