Wireless industry: Court orders needed to block prison calls

As officials combat contraband cellphones in the hands of inmates, a wireless trade group says court orders should be required to shut down the devices


By Meg Kinnard
Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. — As prison officials combat contraband cellphones in the hands of the nation's inmates, a wireless trade group says court orders should be required to shut down the devices.

In a letter sent earlier this month to the Federal Communications Commission, Patrick Donovan of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association wrote that judicial review will provide a way to shut down the devices while not interfering with legitimate cellphone calls nearby.

In this April 10, 2009, file photo, Correctional Officer Jose Sandoval inspects one of the more than 2,000 cell phones confiscated from inmates at California State Prison, Solano in Vacaville, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
In this April 10, 2009, file photo, Correctional Officer Jose Sandoval inspects one of the more than 2,000 cell phones confiscated from inmates at California State Prison, Solano in Vacaville, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

"A court order process is part of the checks and balances traditionally imposed when government seeks to compel private sector action in the law enforcement context," Donovan wrote, adding that the requirement "will provide a meaningful level of assurance that the targeted device is in fact contraband."

State and federal prison officials have said that the phones — smuggled into their institutions by the thousands, by visitors, errant employees, and even delivered by drone — are dangerous because inmates use them to plot violence and carry out crimes.

Some advocate signal jamming as a way to fix the problem. But industry groups like CTIA, which represents wireless service providers, have long said that, while they support efforts to cut out inmates' illegal calls, they worry signal-blocking technologies could thwart legal calls.

The FCC, which regulates the nation's airwaves, has said it can't permit jamming in state prisons, citing a decades-old law that prohibits interruption of the airwaves at state-level institutions. But the agency has been softening on the issue, thanks to persistent pleas from officials including South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, his Corrections director, Bryan Stirling, as well as members of Congress including Tennessee Rep. David Kustoff.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is hosting a meeting on the issue next month. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons — which is permitted to jam signals at its federal institutions but hasn't routinely done so — recently conducted a test at a prison in Maryland, something Assistant U.S. Attorney General Beth Williams told AP represented "a big step" and could lead to the broader use of such technologies.

Donovan attached to his letter a proposed order that states could use as a model for their own efforts, calling it "appropriate to protect lawful users' interests in their wireless service and to avoid any risk to legitimate users that could arise from wrongful disruption of their wireless service."

Donovan wrote that it would be a temporary restraining order compelling carriers to block services to specific cellphone numbers. Even if prison officers haven't seized phones they suspect to be in inmates' hands, devices that mimic cell towers could allow officials to capture a list of all cell numbers within an institution, a list they could then compare to known numbers, like those belonging to employees.

"It's unattainable," Stirling, one of the nation's most vocal prison system directors on the need for a cellphone solution, told AP, of CTIA's proposal. "This is just more of the same from the cellphone industry. They're putting the almighty dollar in front of the safety and security of our staff and the public safety in general."

CTIA representatives didn't respond to questions as to whether they would be attending next month's FCC meeting.

Associated Press
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