NIJ Conference 2010: Summary of Plenary "Cell Phones in Prisons"


  • Larry D. Atlas, Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Communications and Information, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Washington, D.C.
  • James Arden Barnett Jr., Rear Admiral (Ret.), Chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, Federal Communications Commission, Washington, D.C.
  • Aaron D. Kennard, Executive Director, National Sheriffs’ Association, Alexandria, Va.
  • Harley G. Lappin, Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.
  • Gary D. Maynard, Secretary, Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Towson
  • Moderator: Ellen Scrivner, Deputy Director, Office of the Director, National Institute of Justice, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.

Ellen Scrivner, Deputy Director of the National Institute of Justice, opened the discussion, noting that blocking cell phones interferes with legitimate use. Stopping the entry of cell phones into prisons and locating them once introduced are both difficult. The session did not intend to offer a solution or take a position; instead, the panelists discussed a variety of potential solutions in an effort to advance the national conversation.

Gary Maynard, Secretary, Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, pointed out that this conversation was not possible four years ago because law enforcement was not then aware of the use of illicit cell phones in prisons. One reason for targeting illegal cell phones is that their use has become intimately associated with gang violence over the past three years. Today, Maryland prisons use scanners, x-ray machines, dogs and metal detectors at the entry to each of its 27 facilities.

More than 2,000 cell phones have been found in Maryland prisons in the last three years.

The key is stopping phones before they enter facilities: cell phones found at Maryland state prison entrances increased by 137% between the last quarter of 2009 and the first quarter of 2010.

Less contraband = better security = safer institutions:

  • Serious assaults by inmates on staff dropped by 30% from 2007 to 2009.
  • Serious inmate-on-inmate assaults are down by 50%.

Harley Lappin, Director, Federal Bureau of Prisons, told of an inmate in a New Jersey state prison who was accused of ordering the 2005 hit on his girlfriend from jail, using a stolen cell phone.

Although communication is essential for safe and secure jails and prisons, it must be controlled. Federal prisoners may use the phone system to contact family and friends at $.06/minute for local calls and $.22/minute for long-distance calls, and they have unlimited mail privileges. The conflict is between maintaining inmates’ community ties and, at the same time, maintaining safe and secure institutions. Contraband cell phones seriously threaten prison security and public safety because they are unmonitored and uncontrolled. They frequently involve gang networks, threats to witnesses, drug sales, the planning of escapes, and so on. Whether a facility is large or small, contraband cell phones jeopardize public safety and the security of the institution.

How do inmates get them into the facility? They are thrown over fences. Prison guards smuggle them in. Inmates’ resourcefulness seems endless. Once in the prison, they are hidden in walls, in hollowed-out books, even in the body cavity.

Cell phones can be detected while in use, but the technology is expensive and not totally effective. Cell phone jamming is possible. Technologies being tested break down into “scooping” and brute-force jamming. Scooping directs calls to a fake “no service” message; brute force inundates a facility with massive radio signals that block all incoming and outgoing calls.

Confiscated cell phones provide a wealth of information, such as the user’s phone book, call history, call duration, text messages, and multimedia messages with identifiers, photos or video.

Aaron Kennard, Executive Director, National Sheriffs' Association, explained that, in the U.S., 95% of all jails in the country are run by sheriffs. Offenders who go to federal or state prisons usually go to the county jail first. Every county jail must be a maximum security facility because the full range of prisoners comes through.

James Barnett, Chief, Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission, said it is absolutely essential to do something about contraband phones in prisons. The FCC recognizes that technological solutions are available and is working to implement them, but cell phone jammers are illegal by congressional action. Radio signals cannot be interfered with safely. To use such devices, jamming laws would have to be changed. Why is this? Illegal jammers are already coming into the U.S. and could be a serious public safety concern. Homeland security itself could be threatened. Terrorists would want to make sure the public could not communicate.

Congress has directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to look at this. Possible technological approaches:

  • Signal jamming: requires congressional action.
  • Managed access: legal, but requires an agreement with carriers. Phones seek the strongest signal; a tower placed near the prison blocks unapproved calls.
  • Detection: legal, but has a significant price tag. It places the burden on correctional officers.

Technical aspects of these technologies are being tested, for example, in a trial at Parchman, a major correctional institute in Mississippi, where a managed access system is being tested. The FCC is watching this trial very closely.

Larry Atlas, Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Communication and Information and Administrator in the NTIA, agreed that contraband cell phone use is intolerable. The agency is ready to assist with technological solutions.

  1. It can approve testing in federal prisons.
  2. It can test telecommunications solutions.

A test run in Cumberland, Md., showed that jamming was stronger when cell phones were on. A second significant finding was that test results are idiosyncratic to the jammer and the facility. If either is changed, the results are different.

In fiscal 2010, Congress asked the NTIA to develop a plan to facilitate technical solutions, and a notice of inquiry was issued on three groups of technologies: jamming devices, detection devices and selective jamming. Each of these has various technical and legal problems associated with it.

The comments period has just closed, and more than 40 comments were received from many types of organizations. These will become the basis of a report to Congress. Multiple solutions are needed.

The panel agreed that this is a new frontier in law enforcement requiring a great deal of groundbreaking work.

Date Created: July 16, 2010