Prison chief eyes new cell phone intercept system
COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina’s prison director still wants a system to jam all cell phone signals in prison, but said Thursday he is testing a less intrusive technology to block signals from phones illegally smuggled to inmates.
Jon Ozmint, a leader in a push by prisoner directors to jam phones that can be used to orchestrate crimes from behind bars, spoke Thursday at a Washington workshop hosted by the Federal Communications Commission.
“We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t admitting that we needed some help, because the phones are going to make it in anyway, and we can’t find them all,” Ozmint told the forum.
For years, Ozmint has been pushing regulators for permission to use a radio frequency technology that nullifies phone signals before they can reach a cell tower.
He and other prison directors nationwide complain that smuggled cell phones allow inmates to organize criminal activity outside if prison. Ozmint has asked the FCC to let him test jamming on a pilot basis, submitting a petition signed by 30 states.
But regulators have not acted on that request. They point to a 1934 law that only allows federal agencies, not state or local ones, to jam public airwaves.
Federal lawmakers have introduced bills that would allow pilot jamming programs. The Senate passed its version, but the House version has stalled on Capitol Hill.
On Thursday, Ozmint revealed he has begun a pilot program using another type of technology that blocks cell signals but doesn’t require any change in federal law.
The system, known as managed access, routes calls coming from a certain area to a third-party provider that checks each phone’s signature against a database of approved numbers, blocking those not on the list.
Mississippi began testing out the system last month at a state penitentiary in Parchman. In August alone, Mississippi Corrections Director Christopher Epps said the state intercepted about 216,000 illegal phone calls, showing inmates that their smuggled phones were worthless.
Epps, who is expanding the system to two more prisons next year, recalled how one inmate gave up his phone with words to the effect: “You can have it, it don’t work anyway.”
A cell phone industry that generally opposes jamming supports the blocking technology as less draconian.
On his blog last month, CTIA-The Wireless Association chief executive Steve Largent said the technology works “like a scalpel” instead of simply blocking all calls.
He recalls the story of Capt. Robert Johnson, a 15-year South Carolina Corrections veteran who oversaw efforts to keep contraband out of a maximum security state prison. Johnson was shot six times in his home earlier this year in a hit authorities say was orchestrated from a smuggled cell phone.