Prison, wireless industry task force meets in DC to talk cell phone jamming in prisons

Contraband cell phones seized in prisons (WCIV).png

Illegal cell phones smuggled into prisons were the focus of a high-level taskforce meeting Monday in Washington D.C.

Contraband phones are a problem law enforcement says is reaching crisis levels after one of the deadliest prison riots in U.S. history at South Carolina’s Lee Correctional two weeks ago.

Several heads of state corrections departments, including S.C. Dept. of Corrections director Bryan Stirling, met with representative from wireless service providers.

In the room was a who’s who from the wireless telecommunications world, including AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile and several smaller providers.

Getting the cell phone companies to the table for the meeting was a critical step, as the two sides have been at odds for years over how to get illegal cell phones out of the nation’s prison systems.

Prison leaders have been adamant that cell phone signal jamming technology is needed, while wireless providers have balked every time at that notion, they say over fears of impacts on the public and potential abuses. Prison officials have countered, accusing the wireless industry of hiding behind public safety altruism in a self-serving attempt to protect profits.

Stirling said the tone of this meeting was entirely different though. Stirling partly credits the different tone to FCC chairman Ajit Pai for his encouragement of leadership from both sides to find a solution.

The FCC facilitated the meeting, hoping to help the two sides find middle ground on the technology in play for battling the cell phone issue.

One option is to jam all cell phone signals, while another option is a tool that can selectively block some signals while allowing others — AKA, “managed access.”

An engineer from Virginia Tech who works for the wireless industry was at the meeting, and briefed those there on work he’s doing at test sites with the so-called “managed access jamming technology.

Stirling says he’s even offered up Lee Correctional Institution as a test site for managed access jamming.

Both sides were enthusiastic following the meeting, saying the taskforce summit marked the beginning of an important partnership both prison and wireless industry officials hope will lead to lives being saved.

“We are pleased that industry and corrections officials came together today to agree on actionable steps to find a solution to the use of illegal cellphones in prisons, which is a major threat to the safety of correctional facility employees, other inmates, and the public,” the FCC said in a statement. “The FCC has relentlessly pushed to identify new technology solutions to legally address this urgent problem, including convening the first working group meeting this year of state correctional agencies, public safety officials and the wireless industry. “

Meanwhile, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association & Association of State Correctional Administrators released a joint statement following the meeting. It reads:

“ASCA and CTIA are committed to protecting the public from the dangers posed by contraband cellphones in the hands of prison inmates. We welcome the FCC’s continued focus on this problem and today’s task force meeting marked the beginning of an important partnership. It’s clear there’s no easy answer, but ASCA and CTIA launched an initiative today to begin to identify and test solutions in the coming months for stamping out the use of contraband cellphones.”

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