July 14, 2009 in City

Wash. seeks to jam cell phone signals in prisons

Jennifer Sullivan Seattle Times

Washington is among more than two dozen states seeking permission to jam cellphone signals inside prison walls to thwart inmates from making illegal calls.

South Carolina Corrections Director Jon Ozmint said a petition was filed Monday with the Federal Communications Commission seeking the OK to jam signals. He said the petition bears signatures from corrections directors in 25 states and three cities.

Washington prisons chief Eldon Vail would like to see the project move forward, but it is unclear who would pay for the proposed project or whether the FCC would grant permission to jam signals.

“From what I’ve seen, the technology works really well. We would like to have access to the technology,” said Vail, secretary of the Department of Corrections.

In the meantime, Vail said the Corrections Department is using dogs trained to sniff out cellphones inside several of the prisons.

While only about a dozen cellphones have been found inside Washington prisons over the past two years, prisons spokesman Chad Lewis said the figure is still alarming.

“Cellphones are some of the most dangerous contraband for several reasons. They have a very high black-market price; some phones go for several hundred dollars to over $1,000,” Lewis said.

In several states, inmates have used contraband phones to commit new crimes. In May, a Maryland man was given multiple life terms for a contract killing — according to The (Baltimore) Sun the order was placed over a cellphone from behind bars.

“It’s impossible to keep contraband out of prisons. Anytime you have something illegal it creates power, it creates debts [among inmates] and it creates violence,” Vail said.

No inmate in Washington has been known to use a contraband phone to threaten somebody on the outside or to commit new crimes, Lewis said.

The penalty for inmates found with smuggled cellphones is stiffer than being caught with cigarettes and other contraband, Lewis said.

If hearings officers find an inmate guilty of possessing a cellphone, the inmates may see their release date pushed back, be sent to solitary confinement and lose all privileges to use authorized phones in the prisons.

King County Jail Maj. William Hayes said illegal cellphone use by inmates in the county’s lockups has not been a problem.

According to The Associated Press, however, the FCC can allow only federal agencies — not state or local authorities — permission to jam cellphone signals.

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