Maryland Gov. O’Malley Wants to Jam Prison Cell Phones

Published August 1, 2009

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) wants to demonstrate how jamming cell phone signals in prison can help fight crime, but he’ll need a waiver from the Federal Communications Commission first.

FCC regulations ban cell phone jammers, which disable cell phone signals through the use of interfering radio waves, and the commission has denied several similar requests from other states in the past. While O’Malley hopes the answer will be different this time, he would look for permission other ways if the FCC denies his request, O’Malley Press Secretary Shaun Adamec said.

“The governor is committed to doing this through the proper channels and believes by some means the federal government will allow that,” Adamec said. “A demonstration could be hugely beneficial to legislators who are voting on the legislation.”

In May a Baltimore drug dealer who used a cell phone to plan the killing of a witness from the city jail was sentenced to life without parole. Patrick A. Byers Jr. was convicted of murdering Carl S. Lackl Jr., who had identified Byers as the gunman in a previous killing.

Lackl, a 38-year-old single father, was slain in a drive-by shooting outside his home in July 2007, a week before Byers was scheduled for trial.

Federal Legislation Moving

Legislation is pending in the U.S. House (HR 560) and Senate (S 251) that would amend the Communications Act of 1934 to allow the FCC to grant permission to states to use the jammers in prisons.

Criminals use contraband cell phones while behind bars—947 phones were confiscated from Maryland prisoners in 2008—to smuggle drugs, plan escapes, and commit murder, according to officials. But the wireless industry says phone-jamming technology wouldn’t effectively eliminate illegal calls.

In South Carolina the FCC denied a petition to waive the jam ban last year. It also refused permission for demonstrations in Louisiana and the District of Columbia earlier this year.

South Carolina Defied Ban

The South Carolina Department of Corrections in November went ahead with a jamming demonstration despite the ban. Department Director Jon Ozmint predicted the congressional legislation would move too slowly and said the FCC already holds the authority to waive the ban.

Ozmint pointed to the hit put out on Lackl from jail as demonstrating the need for quick repeal of the ban.

“The way this Congress and Washington works, the one dead witness in Maryland, unfortunately, might not be enough,” Ozmint said. “We’ve pushed and screamed as loud as we can to say you need to do this before you have more bad outcomes. If we want to keep the public safe, we should be jamming cell phones in every prison in the country.”

But Berin Szoka, director of the Progress & Freedom Foundation’s Center for Internet Freedom, said any selective allowance of jamming demonstrations before a Congressional vote would abuse the commission’s authority. Unless Congress amends the law to allow for selective jamming, the FCC should deny all waiver requests, he said.

“It’s really not up to the FCC to grant waivers or to look the other way when someone is breaking the rules,” Szoka said. “If the FCC knows someone is breaking the law, they have an obligation to enforce those rules.”

Political Decisions Feared

It would be better to let Congress give the proper permission to FCC engineers and technology experts, Szoka added. Even public safety concerns shouldn’t be the determining factor in deciding the matter, he said.

“You don’t want politicians deciding how to run networks,” Szoka said. “It’s not because their concerns are illegitimate, but getting politicians who have a bee in their bonnet is a recipe for bad policymaking. I fear that people are going to make decisions more informed by panic than by actual fact and evidence.”

Proponents of jamming say deterrent efforts such as cell phone detectors and phone-sniffing dogs, including the ones Maryland prisons already use, aren’t effective enough. And Ozmint said the South Carolina demonstration—where phones worked immediately outside the jammed area—showed jam technology can be very precise.

‘Not Like Scalpels’

But Christopher Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA, the wireless industry association, said unlike a demonstration setup, a completely jammed prison would require overstuffing with jammers to eliminate any possibility of a signal in the prison.

“Our concern is [that] jammers, by their nature, are not like scalpels,” Guttman-McCabe said. “They’re like broadswords.”
That could lead to spillover jamming outside the prison. Inside, the jammers could be turned off by corrupt guards, Guttman-McCabe said.

Pursuing another option, the wireless association and the Maryland Department of Corrections are considering developing a pilot program that would eliminate coverage to certain areas—perhaps by a combination of beefed-up phone-detection technology in the prisons and “blacklisting” by wireless companies of phone signals coming from the prisons—without the use of jamming, Guttman-McCabe said.

Limiting to Prisons

Bartlett Cleland, director of the Institute for Policy Innovation’s Center for Technology Freedom, said while he usually is suspicious of “ubiquitous technological solutions” to problems, he would favor any kind of solution so long as it doesn’t hurt cell service outside prisons.

“I have a problem when it starts seeping out into society and affecting their legitimate freedoms,” Cleland said.

Whitney Stewart ([email protected]) writes from Minneapolis.