- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2009

Maryland’s public safety secretary was among a handful of local officials who appealed to members of Congress on Wednesday to give states a new tool to control illegal cell phone use by prison inmates.

Prisons around the nation are grappling with rising problems from inmates using cell phones to coordinate criminal activity. Officials are backing legislation to change the law to allow states to use cell phone jamming technology to render cell phones useless in prison.

Gary Maynard, secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, emphasized that the problem is a national issue, noting that California prison officials collected more than 2,800 cell phones last year — two times the amount found the previous year.

“We need to fight technology with technology,” Mr. Maynard said.

The dangerous and far-reaching aspects of prisoner cell phone use were illustrated in Maryland two years ago, when a Baltimore drug dealer used a cell phone to plan the killing of a witness from the city jail. In May, Patrick A. Byers Jr. was convicted of murdering Carl S. Lackl Jr., who had identified Mr. Byers as the gunman in a previous killing.

Maryland has made a request to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for a 30-minute demonstration at a Maryland prison that houses federal inmates to inform Congress about available technology to combat illicit cell phone use.

The agency shares responsibility for managing the nation’s communications network with the Federal Communications Commission.

Texas State Sen. John Whitmire, whose life was threatened by a death row inmate with a cell phone, said cell phones smuggled inside prisons are the fastest growing and most alarming development in prison contraband in Texas. He said corrections officials are in “a war” and need the jamming tool.

“Short of jamming and a complete shutting down of those phone signals, I don’t think we can remedy the problem,” Mr. Whitmire told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “It is a public safety problem.”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, is sponsoring legislation to change the law to make it possible for states to use the jamming technology. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, is the lead co-sponsor for Democrats. A companion bill is pending before a House Judiciary subcommittee.

But industry representatives say jamming signals could interfere with legitimate service and 911 calls.

Steve Largent, president and CEO of CTIA-the Wireless Association, testified that he didn’t think cell phone jamming would fully address the issue. He told the committee there are better technological alternatives.

One alternative Mr. Largent proposed is called cell detection, technology that would enable prison officials to find a cell phone used inside a correctional environment without sending an interfering signal. By detecting the cell phone, prison officials could find and confiscate cell phones in prison without interfering with citizens’ cell phone use or public safety channels.

Mr. Largent said another approach to the problem would be to use technology to manage wireless access in a prison. Managed access would restrict cell phone use in a certain area to people who are authorized to use it.

“Put simply, the right solution is one that effectively prohibits access by those who should not have it while ensuring that law-abiding citizens and public safety users enjoy the most reliable service possible,” Mr. Largent said. His group, CTIA, is the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry.

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