Senator Hutchison Pushes to Allow Prisons to Block Inmate Cell Phone Calls

July 15, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Ranking Member on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, today during a Commerce Committee hearing pushed to allow prisons to block calls from smuggled inmate cellular phones.  Senator Hutchison earlier this year introduced bipartisan legislation, the Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009 (S. 251), that would prevent prison inmates from using smuggled cellular phones by allowing states to petition to operate wireless jamming devices in particular correctional facilities. 

“We are 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,” said Senator Hutchison.  “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.  Cell phones have also been used to carry out threats and brutal attacks against the public. When a single call can result in someone’s death, we have an obligation to exhaust every technology at our disposal.”

Senator Hutchison noted one of the witnesses testifying at today’s hearing, Texas State Senator John Whitmire, was threatened by a death row inmate who used a smuggled cell phone to make threatening calls.  The smuggled phone was later found, but officers found eleven additional phones belonging to other death row inmates while looking for it.  In 2008, corrections systems across the country reported large numbers of confiscated phones. California reported nearly 3,000 phones found with inmates, while Mississippi had nearly 2,000.  The Federal Bureau of prisons reports they confiscated more than 1,600 phones during 2008. 

Senator Hutchison’s bill preserves the general prohibition against intentional interference with wireless communications, but creates a process for correctional facilities to seek a waiver from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to operate a wireless jamming device.  The bill does not grant this authority outright, instead 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 be directed to 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 FCC investigates upon receiving an allegation of interference.

“Just 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,” Senator Hutchison said.  “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.”

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You can watch Senator Hutchison’s statement here.