Cell Phones Pose Challenge at Prisons

By: - August 2, 2010 12:00 am

When a death-row inmate in Texas called a powerful state senator several times from his cell in 2008 — hoping that the lawmaker would help him — correctional authorities nationwide took notice.

The incident, they said, showed the ease with which inmates, even those on death row, can get their hands on cell phones in prison. They warned that access to cell phones can allow inmates to break the law again from the security of their cells, including by making threatening phone calls or by communicating with accomplices on the outside.

Two years later, the incident, and others like it around the nation, have prompted Congress to take action, though many state officials hope the federal government will go further.

Congress last month passed legislation specifically classifying cell phones and wireless devices at federal prisons as contraband material, The Associated Press reported . Currently, the technology is not considered contraband and prison guards can go unpunished for helping smuggle cell phones to inmates, even though they can collect hundreds or even thousands of dollars in bribes for doing so, the AP said.

The federal legislation could send a strong message to prison guards who have helped smuggle cell phones. But the change would affect only federal prisons, which contain a relatively small percentage of the nation’s prisoners.

States want Congress to go further by jamming cell phone signals at their own correctional facilities. A series of recent incidents in New Jersey, for example — including one in which an inmate allegedly ordered a “hit” on his ex-girlfriend from inside prison — has led the state corrections chief there to seek expanded cell phone-blocking technology, The Star-Ledger reported .

Cell phone blocking at prisons nationwide may be a tall order, however. It would take another act of Congress, since it is currently not allowed under Federal Communications Commission rules. Critics of the proposed change — while cognizant of the danger of having cell phones at prisons — argue that large-scale government signal-blocking would be a slippery slope that could lead to further interference with cell phone use.

The Senate has approved a bill that would block cell phone signals at prisons, but the measure is awaiting action in the House.



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