This is a country where cell phones connect people as fast as they can push buttons, but where efforts to prevent prisoners from using illegal cell phones — often for nefarious purposes — have moved at the speed of the Pony Express. At best.
Actually, for several years, the controversial issue has gone nowhere. But now there is room for hope. The FCC has finally agreed to consider changing its rules to address the serious problem.
For several years, prison officials across the country have petitioned Congress and the FCC to change rules barring them from jamming cell phone signals within prisons.
Prisoners, have regularly been able to get contraband phones despite crackdowns by officials. Friends toss them over the wall or smuggle them in. And prisoners, able to use them to contact their associates on the outside, are also able to continue their criminal behavior.
In one case in South Carolina, a prisoner ordered a hit on a prison guard. He was shot at his home but survived.
Prison officials want to jam cell phone signals within the jail property only. The 1934 Communications Act, as amended, bans the use of jamming technology by non-federal government entities.
Congress has considered legislation to help, but failed to pass it. The wireless industry and some public safety groups have opposed jamming for fear it would interfere with commercial and public safety wireless services.
Jon Ozmint, former director of the S.C. Department of Corrections and an advocate for permitting prisons to jam cell signals, said “the glacier has moved.”
The FCC is going to issue a “notice of proposed rule-making” on this topic. Mr. Ozmint received a draft notice circulated to FCC commissioners. It would modify the agency’s rules to facilitate alternatives to jamming signals as a way to quash the use of contraband mobile phones by inmates.
He warned that the discussion is no guarantee that action will be taken, and some prison officials complain the system being considered is too expensive. But it is an acknowledgement that something needs to be done.
It is described on the manufacturer’s website as forming “a radio frequency umbrella around a precisely defined target area” to intercept cellular devices within range. The system operator can “selectively permit or deny communications from these cellular devices ... including allowing 911 calls from even unauthorized devices.”
That should satisfy public safety groups.
The FCC has dragged its feet on prison cell phones. It is time for commissioners to recognize that its rules encourage the use of contraband cell phones by prisoners — and put people in jeopardy because of it.