COLUMBIA, S.C. – Federal officials say they conducted a successful test earlier this year of a jamming technology some hope will help combat the threat posed by inmates with smuggled cellphones.
A report obtained Friday by The Associated Press details the January 17 test of micro-jamming technology at a federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland. Officials say they were able to shut down phone signals inside a prison cell, while devices about 20 feet away worked normally.
For years, officials in state and federal prisons have spoken out about the dangers posed by cellphones in the hands of inmates, who can use them to continue criminal endeavors behind bars, including drug trafficking, extortion scams, and even attacks on witnesses and others. Officials including South Carolina Corrections Director Bryan Stirling have advocated jamming, which renders cell signals useless.
But a decades-old law says federal officials can grant permission to jam the public airwaves only to federal agencies, not state or local agencies. Telecommunications companies are opposed, saying jamming cell signals could set a bad precedent and interfere with legal cell users nearby.
Last year, Stirling testified at a Federal Communications Commission hearing in Washington alongside Robert Johnson, a former South Carolina corrections officer nearly killed in 2010 in a hit orchestrated by an inmate using an illegal phone. In July, an inmate escaped from a maximum-security prison in South Carolina, thanks in part to a smuggled cellphone. Earlier this year, seven inmates at a maximum-security South Carolina prison were killed in what officials have said was a gang fight over territory and contraband including cellphones.
Similar jamming tests occurred in 2010, but Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams has told AP that January's effort was significant because jamming technology has evolved, as have inmates' efforts to smuggle in the devices. Such tests, she said, could lead to the broader use of technologies like jamming inside prisons to immobilize inmate phones, which officials across the country have described as their No. 1 security threat.
"The results indicate the potential for localized impact of this micro-jamming technology," Williams said, of the January test. "That is an encouraging sign that brings us closer to a solution that will make our communities safer and help prevent the continuation of criminal activity from inside prison walls."
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP. Read more of her work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/meg-kinnard/.