Kay Bailey HutchisonSenator
Statement of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison
“Contraband Cell Phones in Correctional Facilities: Public Safety Impact and the Potential Implications of Jamming Technologies”
Wednesday July 15, 2009, 10:00 a.m.
Thank you Mr. Chairman for agreeing to hold this extremely important hearing. The problem of contraband cellular phones inside our nation’s correctional facilities is real and growing at a rate that poses a significant risk to the lives of the professionals that work in the facilities, and to the public welfare at large.
In 2008 alone, corrections systems reported startling numbers of confiscated phones. California for example reported nearly 3,000 phones found with inmates while Mississippi had nearly 2,000. The problem is not unique to states either. The Federal Bureau of prisons reports they confiscated more than 1,600 phones during 2008.
And, these are just the phones they found! As some of our witnesses will no doubt testify this morning, the inmates, particularly the prison gangs, are becoming increasingly sophisticated in the methods they use to bring the phones into the facilities and to conceal them.
Cellular phones inside our nation’s penal system act as a force multiplier for criminals. A single phone can be shared among numerous inmates, and just a few phones inside a prison can lead to coordinated attacks on guards and facilitate escape attempts.
This is not conjecture. According to the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments, three inmates, including a convicted killer, arranged for their escape from a Kansas facility using a contraband cell phone. In Tennessee, an inmate used a cell phone to plot an escape that resulted in the death of a corrections officer.
And, in June of last year inmates at three Oklahoma correctional facilities coordinated an outbreak of violence across the system, resulting in three deaths and multiple injuries.
Cell phones have also been used to carry out threats and brutal attacks against the public. One of our witnesses today, my friend Senator John Whitmire, was the target of a death row inmate using a cell phone.
In one heartbreaking case an inmate on trial for murder in Maryland orchestrated the assassination of a witness against him using a smuggled cell phone. The witness was gunned down outside his home, and in front of his children.
Our law enforcement officers and prosecutors have a very difficult job to do in protecting the public from dangerous criminals. Can you imagine how much more difficult that job becomes if witnesses are afraid to testify because an inmate inside a prison can threaten them and their family from the comfort of his cell?
We are also seeing a dramatic rise in the number of ongoing criminal enterprises orchestrated from prison via cell phones including drug trafficking, credit card fraud, and identity theft.
What can be done?
This morning we will hear from a number of witnesses on the front line. They can share what they have already been doing to address the problem at the state level including the use of methods such as trained dogs, handheld scanners, metal detectors and increased penalties on guards that facilitate possession of cell phones by inmates in their charge.
The states clearly have an important responsibility, and I look forward to hearing about what is being done. But, Mr. Chairman, we have a responsibility here as well.
To be successful, our corrections officers need as many tools as we can give them to prevent the use of phones if they evade detection and discovery. When a single call can result in someone’s death, we have an obligation to exhaust every technology at our disposal.
At the moment, the federal Communications Act prohibits the use of jamming devices in all but a few cases. The prohibition against intentional interference serves an important purpose. Unregulated use of jamming technology could pose significant risks to commercial wireless operations, but more importantly, public safety communications.
I am mindful of those concerns, but I am also concerned that the efforts being made at the state level alone are not sufficient to keep pace with the scope of the problem.
In January, I introduced S.251, the Safe Prisons Communications Act. I am joined in this bi-partisan effort by several members of this committee.
The bill preserves the general prohibition against intentional interference with wireless communications. However, it creates a process for correctional facilities to seek a waiver from the FCC to operate a wireless jamming device.
Importantly Mr. Chairman, the bill does not grant this authority outright. Rather, it directs the FCC to conduct a robust rulemaking in which it considers whether it is in the public interest to allow limited waivers, and under what circumstances.
The Commission will also conduct a device approval process that ensures that devices operate with the lowest possible power output and include other interference mitigating measures.
Each correctional facility would then have to apply individually for the ability to deploy jamming technology. Even after a waiver is granted, there are protections against interference outside of a prison. Equipment must be immediately disengaged while the Commission investigates upon receiving an allegation of interference.
Immediately after the bill was introduced, some parties began alleging that the bill isn’t needed because of other options or that the bill will result in harmful interference.
What most have discovered in reading the bill is that it preserves the federal prohibition on intentional interference and simply directs the expert agency to establish a waiver process if it believes limited jamming is in the public interest, and to test and approve individual devices.
Far from leading to interference issues outside of a correctional facility operating a jammer, my bill is carefully constructed to prevent that very thing.
Some suggested alternatives to jamming technology present major problems for corrections departments. For example, devices allegedly capable of “listening in” to cell phone conversations are untested and logistically unmanageable. Officials would need legions of officers trained to monitor conversations even where warrants can be obtained, and we will never be certain we are covering the full range of activity.
I am not prepared to accept the possibility that in allowing inmates to use the phones they smuggle we will not intercept all of the dangerous transmissions. One call that slips through and leads to another death is not acceptable when we have the technology to prevent the use of contraband phones entirely.
I will continue to work with members and all concerned stakeholders, in particular public safety officials to address outstanding concerns. What I am absolutely not prepared to do is sit here and do nothing. As our witnesses will no doubt testify, corrections professionals need more tools. I am confident the legislation offers a very valuable tool, but I look forward to hearing from our witnesses what else Congress can do.
We put criminals in prison to end their ability to commit crimes and terrorize the public. We cannot look away knowing full well that no matter how hard our dedicated law enforcement and corrections professionals work to stop them, contraband phones will get into prisons and be used to commit unspeakable acts. We have to find a way to stop their use.
We have an opportunity and a responsibility to get ahead of this problem. Today’s hearing is a good first step to make sure we do so.
Thank you again Mr. Chairman.
The Honorable John WhitmireState SenatorTexas
Mr. Richard MirgonPresident-ElectAssociation of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International
Mr. Gary MaynardSecretary, Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional ServicesFormer President, Association of State Corrections Administrators
Mr. Steve LargentPresident and Chief Executive OfficerCTIA - The Wireless Association
Mr. John MoriartyInspector GeneralTexas Department of Criminal Justice