States, feds clash over cell signals

South Carolina wants to jam cell phone signals in prisons to prevent convicts from committing further crimes. There's one significant problem with the plan: It's against the law.

The struggle to stop cell phone use in prisons — where some experts say the devices have become a new form of cash — has states trying old-fashioned jail-cell searches, sophisticated body scanners, even dogs trained to sniff out batteries and memory chips. South Carolina's state prison chief, Jon Ozmint, wants to add to those tactics with existing technology that blocks cell signals.

Standing in his way is the federal Communications Act, which prevents states from using jammers or otherwise interfering with federal airwaves.

The Federal Communications Commission can give federal agencies the authority to use such jammers. But there's no such provision for state and local law enforcement.

“This is a classic example of a rule that has not kept up with technology,” said Ozmint, who has managed South Carolina's 28 prisons for the past five years.

“It's just hypocrisy beyond the pale of reason that the big bad federal government goes, ‘Oh, well, we can use this technology, but you poor little states can't use the same technology to protect your citizens.'”

Experts say the consequences of not using jammers can be dire. Perhaps the most glaring example took place in Maryland last summer, when Baltimore resident Carl Lackl identified a shooting suspect.

Authorities say the 38-year-old father was gunned down outside his home after the suspect used a cell phone to order the hit from behind bars.

In South Carolina, Ozmint blames illegal cell phones for most of the state's prison escapes. In one 2005 case, cell phones were found on two inmates who escaped a maximum security prison in Columbia by hiding in a trash truck.

In Texas this week, prison officials arrested the mother of a death row inmate on charges she paid for minutes on a cell phone that had been smuggled to her condemned son. The inmate shared the phone with nine other inmates and called a state senator to say he knew the lawmaker's daughters' names, authorities said. The governor's office said a corrections officer had been bribed to get the cell phone to the inmate.

It's not clear how much it would cost to outfit South Carolina's prisons with jamming devices, though officials say they'd focus first on installing the technology in maximum-security prisons.

Critics say it's impossible to contain the jamming technology to one or two buildings, and that using it runs the risk of affecting people using phones nearby.

“You can prevent emergency calls if these jammers are allowed,” said Joe Farren, spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group for the wireless industry. “You put signal jammers in, you interfere with critical communications, life and death.”

That worry is shared by Zack Kendall, a security specialist for North Carolina's prison system, who said he doesn't know whether his prisons would take advantage of signal blocking because it could interfere with internal radio communications.