Cell phones keep flooding state prisons

October 11, 2010 3:34:55 AM PDT
Despite highly publicized crackdowns, cell phones continue to be smuggled to prison inmates in large numbers in Texas and nationwide, according to a published report. Those phones have been implicated in a number of crimes inside the prisons and outside, including homicides.

In Texas, the number of cell phone seizures continue to suggest only modest success in keeping the devices out of inmates' hands, the Austin American-Statesman reported in Sunday's editions.

Texas officials estimated that more than 800 cell phones have been confiscated inside state prisons, compared to more than 900 during the same period last year and more than 1,000 the year before.

The number of illegal cell phones found in Texas prisons is down, said John Moriarty, the prison system inspector general, "but the threat is there. As long as the market is there, inmates will be looking for a way to get (cell phones) in."

Before Texas began the crackdowns about two years ago, a condemned killer on Texas death row managed to use a cell phone to make a chilling call to Houston state Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

"I still remember his words, his voice," Whitmire told the newspaper. "It scared the hell out of me. Still does."

About that time, an East Texas prison warden received a call from the mother of an inmate who complained about the poor cell phone reception her son had. A little before then, clogged sewer lines at a maximum-security prison near Houston were found to have been caused by smuggled cell phones flushed down cell toilets to avoid detection during a surprise inspection.

In South Carolina, authorities say the shooting of a prison guard at his home seven months ago was a hit ordered from an inmate's cell phone. Capt. Robert Johnson was shot six times in the chest and stomach.

A New Jersey inmate serving time for shooting at two police officers used a smuggled phone in 2005 to order a fatal attack on his girlfriend, who had given authorities information leading to his arrest. Two years after that, a drug dealer in Baltimore's city jail used a cell phone to successfully plan the killing of a witness who had identified him as the gunman in a previous killing.

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, both Texas Republicans, introduced companion bills that would allow states to petition the FCC for permission to jam calls. The Senate passed its version, but the House version has languished, and supporters don't expect it to move forward soon.

The proliferation of the devices in the hands of inmates poses a grave security risk to prison officials. In Texas and other states, prison officials have appealed to Congress to allow them to amend federal communications law so they can jam cell phone signals within their walls. Opposition from cell phone companies have stymied those appeals.

"By its nature, (jamming technology) is designed to ruthlessly cut off service," Christopher Guttman-McCabe of the wireless phone industry group CTIA said at a recent Federal Communications Commission workshop in Washington, D.C. "What happens when there is an event and public safety gets deployed ... and is in some way negatively impacted by the jammer?"

Terry Bittner, director of security products for ITT Corp., told the American-Statesman, "We just don't believe that that type of technology can be controlled precisely enough. I personally think that we're headed down a dangerous path, looking at jamming for that type of application."

The stymied efforts frustrate Whitmire.

"Texas ought to jam cell phones in our prisons and dare the federal government to do something about it," the Houston Democrat said. "There's a public safety danger here that needs to be addressed -- and quickly."


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