Committee Approves Hutchison Bill to Jam Illegal Prison Cell Phones

August 5, 2009

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee today approved bipartisan legislation sponsored by Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Ranking Member on the Committee, to allow prisons to block calls from contraband cellular phones.  The Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009 (S. 251), is cosponsored by Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Mark Begich (D-Alaska), John Thune (R-S.D.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), David Vitter (R-La.), and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).  It would prevent prison inmates from using smuggled cellular phones by allowing states to petition to operate wireless jamming devices in particular correctional facilities.  The bill now moves to the full Senate for consideration. 

“Imprisoned convicts are using contraband cell phones to coordinate murders, plot extortion schemes, and run drug trafficking, credit card fraud, and identity theft enterprises,” said Senator Hutchison.  “Prisons are meant to stop the commission of crimes, but cell phones inside prisons mean business as usual for dangerous felons.  With innocent lives on the line, Congress has a responsibility to make available all technologies that can prevent the illicit use of cell phones in prisons.  America’s dedicated law enforcement and corrections professionals need this important capability and this legislation will help ensure criminals behind bars are no longer able to terrorize the public.”

Last year, Texas State Senator John Whitmire was recently 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, while the Federal Bureau of Prisons reported they confiscated more than 1,600 phones.  The legislation is supported by Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, South Carolina Department of Corrections, Washington, D.C. Department of Corrections, Association of State Correctional Administrators, American Jail Association, American Correctional Association, National Sheriffs Association, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, Fraternal Order of Police, National Association of Governors, and the Council of State Governments. 

Below is a summary of the key points in S. 251 - the Safe Prisons Communications Act:


  • The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must conduct a rulemaking regarding the potential use of wireless jamming equipment in correctional facilities.  As part of this rulemaking the Commission must solicit and consider the input of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and one or more outside technical bodies with expertise in standards setting.  The Commission must also consider all available technologies capable of preventing the use of unauthorized wireless communications in correctional facilities.


  • In addition to this rulemaking, the Commission must also establish rules and criteria for the approval of jamming systems and devices before accepting petitions for a waiver of the prohibition on devices that cause intentional interference with wireless communications.


  • Requires the FCC to conduct field testing of all devices submitted for approval and that approved devices operate at the lowest possible power output necessary to facilitate jamming and operate on a directionalized basis to limit the chance for interference.  The measure also provides that devices and systems approved by the Commission may only be sold, marketed, or operated by approved correctional facilities.


  • Prior to filing a petition for a waiver, a correctional facility will provide a notice of intent to the Commission (which will notify public safety and commercial wireless providers in an area).  This will begin a limited coordination period during which the facility and public safety/commercial wireless entities may consult on wireless use in the areas adjacent to the facility and on the selection and proposed configuration of jamming systems and devices to minimize anticipated interference.


  • At the conclusion of this short consultation process, the correctional facility may file its waiver request with the Commission.  Following approval of a waiver, a correctional facility may install and configure the jamming system and associated devices.  However, prior to powering on the devices there is a second brief coordination period to allow public safety entities in particular the opportunity to inspect the installation to guarantee that the system was configured and installed in a manner that avoids anticipated interference.  This is approach will ensure that jammers are not installed improperly and cause otherwise avoidable interference.  The bill also coordinates other aspects of the procedure with changes to the timelines to make sure that these new requirements do not needlessly delay the availability of jamming technology.


  • Finally, the bill requires post-installation and operation safeguards for the shutdown of a jamming system if there is actual interference that was not anticipated in the device approval or coordination processes.  Additionally, each correctional facility approved to operate a jamming system must have a documented procedure to shut down the systems and devices in any circumstance where a public safety entity is responding to an incident at the prison (fires, riots, etc.) to make sure there is no potential interference with public safety radios.

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