ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Martin O’Malley plans to ask federal regulators to allow Maryland to hold a cell-phone jamming demonstration at a state prison to show the effectiveness of stopping inmate cell-phone use, which has been a safety threat in prisons around the nation.
The Federal Communications Commission can give federal agencies permission to jam cell-phone signals, but the Communications Act of 1934 doesn’t allow state and local agencies to use the technology, which prevents cell-tower transmissions from reaching the targeted phone.
“Current attempts to ensure that cell phones stay out of prisons can easily be foiled and must be supplanted by the best technology available,” Mr. O’Malley wrote in a letter to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, who is co-sponsoring legislation in Congress to legalize cell-phone jamming at state and local prisons.
The Democratic governor wrote the letter to Maryland’s senior senator to indicate his intent to request a demonstration and to update Miss Mikulski on the state’s efforts to clear prisons of illegal cell phones.
“I am committed to seizing the opportunity that this legislative initiative has created to move law enforcement and the enhancement of public safety to the 21st century as cell phones become smaller and more difficult to find,” Mr. O’Malley wrote.
South Carolina ran a demonstration in Nov. 2008 without federal permission, while Texas planned one, then called it off because of the federal restriction. The FCC has denied two recent requests from the District of Columbia and Louisiana for test jamming sessions.
Rick Abbruzzese, an O’Malley spokesman, said the time is right for the FCC to consider Maryland’s request because Congress is taking up the issue and that there’s a need for up-to-date data on how the technology can be used to prevent prisoners from using cell phones.
Inmates use cell phones to get around security, further gang activity and conduct criminal activity from behind bars, authorities say.
Last week, a Baltimore drug dealer who used a cell phone in the city jail to plan the killing of a trial witness was sentenced to life without parole. Patrick A. Byers Jr. was convicted of murdering Carl S. Lackl Jr., who had identified Byers as the gunman in a previous killing. Mr. Lackl, a 38-year-old single father, was fatally wounded in a drive-by shooting outside his home in July 2007, a week before Byers was scheduled for trial.
Maryland corrections officials confiscated 947 cell phones in 2008 by using specially trained dogs and other security measures. That’s a 71 percent increase in confiscations compared with 2006, according to the O’Malley administration.
Mr. O’Malley said the confiscations helped reduce serious assaults by inmates on staff by taking away a tool that inmates can use to coordinate attacks - resulting in a 32 percent drop from 2006 to 2008. Mr. O’Malley wrote that serious weapon assaults are down 75 percent over the same period.
“But while we have made progress, we can do much more to improve public safety and eradicate the harm caused by these cell phones by shutting them down,” Mr. O’Malley wrote in the May 7 letter to Miss Mikulski.
Mr. Abbruzzese said state officials are working on the details of a demonstration, and it’s not known where or when it would occur.
Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulator affairs at CTIA - The Wireless Association, the industry’s leading trade group, said he has concerns about cell-phone jamming affecting customers who live near prisons.
“While we don’t want prisoners to have service inside the jails, we also don’t want our customers to be impacted outside the jails,” Mr. Guttman-McCabe said.
Examples of inmates using cell phones to further criminal activity have cropped up nationwide.
In Texas earlier this month, a death-row inmate and two relatives were indicted in a purported cell-phone smuggling case that led to a statewide prison lockdown. A grand jury also indicted Richard Lee Tabler on a felony retaliation charge for threatening to kill a state senator.
In Kansas, convicted killer John Manard planned his 2006 prison escape using a cell phone smuggled in by an accomplice. The following year, two inmates escaped another Kansas prison with the help of a former guard and a smuggled cell phone.