We typically think of cellphones as useful devices that make our lives easier. But in certain situations, that very usefulness can create real dangers. This is most evident in America’s correctional facilities, where contraband cellphones are a growing problem that puts prison guards, inmates and the public at risk.
To get a sense of the scale of the problem, over 5,100 cellphones were confiscated in federal prisons in 2016. Now consider that federal prisoners represent only 13 percent of the overall prison population, and the U.S. Department of Justice says the problem is significantly worse in state and local correctional facilities. We’re talking about at least tens of thousands of phones flowing into U.S. prisons illegally each year. Each one of them creates opportunities for wrongdoing.
And wrongdoing there is. For instance, cellphones are being used to run criminal enterprises from inside jail. Here in South Carolina, 34 individuals were indicted in connection with a drug trafficking operation orchestrated by inmates using contraband cellphones. And there are far too many similar stories from all across the country of contraband phones being used for ordering murders, extortion, witness intimidation, phone scams, and other crimes.
How do these phones get into prisons in the first place? There are many ways, some quite inventive. They’re flown into prisons by drones, hidden in heads of lettuce, and welded into HVAC equipment.
I’ve seen the problem for myself during trips to correctional facilities from South Carolina to Massachusetts. To me, these visits have made clear a basic truth: The status quo is unacceptable. We need to take immediate action.
Unfortunately, we’ll never be able to stop all cellphones from getting into prisons. Contraband has always found a way. That’s why we need to pursue a variety of solutions to reduce the threats that they pose. And that’s where the Federal Communications Commission comes in.
The FCC has played an important role in helping law enforcement combat this emerging threat. Last year, the agency took significant steps to eliminate and streamline our rules so that existing technological solutions to combat contraband could be deployed without delay. We appointed an ombudsman to serve as an accessible single point of contact for stakeholders and communities across the country. More recently, we worked with our federal partners to enable the testing of new technologies like micro-jamming to learn whether they are effective, affordable, and safe without harming legitimate phone users.
This week, I’m convening a group of experts, including representatives of state and federal government, law enforcement and corrections officials, wireless carriers, and companies with a variety of technical solutions. We’re going to further discuss ways to address the problem of contraband devices in correctional facilities.
From my perspective, the most important participants in this fight will be wireless carriers. To date, they have largely remained on the sidelines. This has to change. So I have challenged each wireless carrier to join me and federal, state, and local officials as a full partner to help develop effective and affordable ways to address this problem.
I have no doubt that wireless companies can help. For example, given their expertise and resources, they can partner with correctional authorities to help us determine the best, most cost-effective technological solutions to limit contraband device use in prisons. They can then work to block these devices from their networks. They can conduct tests in appropriate locations to see whether cellular signals can be directed away from prisons at reasonable cost without loss of service to surrounding communities. They can also explore how their own networks can potentially be used to help law enforcement identify contraband devices.
There is no magic solution to this problem. No single approach will work in all places and at all times. But we shouldn’t prematurely take possibilities off the table. Let’s figure out what can help make correctional officers, other inmates, and the public at large safe from the threat of contraband cellphones. We can get there sooner, and America will be better off, with the full support of the wireless industry.
Ajit Pai is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.