SC prisons chief says he’s testing technology to block calls of inmates’ smuggled cell phones

By Meg Kinnard, AP
Friday, October 1, 2010

Prison chief eyes new cell phone intercept system

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina’s prison director still wants a system to jam all cell phone signals in prison, but said Thursday he is testing a less intrusive technology to block signals from phones illegally smuggled to inmates.

Jon Ozmint, a leader in a push by prisoner directors to jam phones that can be used to orchestrate crimes from behind bars, spoke Thursday at a Washington workshop hosted by the Federal Communications Commission.

“We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t admitting that we needed some help, because the phones are going to make it in anyway, and we can’t find them all,” Ozmint told the forum.

For years, Ozmint has been pushing regulators for permission to use a radio frequency technology that nullifies phone signals before they can reach a cell tower.

He and other prison directors nationwide complain that smuggled cell phones allow inmates to organize criminal activity outside if prison. Ozmint has asked the FCC to let him test jamming on a pilot basis, submitting a petition signed by 30 states.

But regulators have not acted on that request. They point to a 1934 law that only allows federal agencies, not state or local ones, to jam public airwaves.

Federal lawmakers have introduced bills that would allow pilot jamming programs. The Senate passed its version, but the House version has stalled on Capitol Hill.

On Thursday, Ozmint revealed he has begun a pilot program using another type of technology that blocks cell signals but doesn’t require any change in federal law.

The system, known as managed access, routes calls coming from a certain area to a third-party provider that checks each phone’s signature against a database of approved numbers, blocking those not on the list.

Mississippi began testing out the system last month at a state penitentiary in Parchman. In August alone, Mississippi Corrections Director Christopher Epps said the state intercepted about 216,000 illegal phone calls, showing inmates that their smuggled phones were worthless.

Epps, who is expanding the system to two more prisons next year, recalled how one inmate gave up his phone with words to the effect: “You can have it, it don’t work anyway.”

A cell phone industry that generally opposes jamming supports the blocking technology as less draconian.

On his blog last month, CTIA-The Wireless Association chief executive Steve Largent said the technology works “like a scalpel” instead of simply blocking all calls.

Even with the managed access pilot program in place, Ozmint isn’t giving up on his push for jamming, which the FCC let him to demonstrate at a South Carolina prison in 2008.

He recalls the story of Capt. Robert Johnson, a 15-year South Carolina Corrections veteran who oversaw efforts to keep contraband out of a maximum security state prison. Johnson was shot six times in his home earlier this year in a hit authorities say was orchestrated from a smuggled cell phone.

Johnson, 57, required eight surgeries and months of rehabilitation.

“The reason he was shot is he was intercepting cell phones. He was doing his job,” Ozmint said of what is believed to be the first hit on a U.S. corrections officer ordered from an inmate’s phone.

But others have been targets.

In recent years, a New Jersey shooting suspect used a smuggled phone to order a fatal attack on his girlfriend, who had given authorities information leading to his arrest. A drug dealer in Baltimore’s city jail used a cell phone to plan the killing of a witness who had identified him as the gunman in a previous killing.

The cell phone industry’s representative on the panel Thursday urged leaders like Ozmint to continue to test and pursue managed access systems, warning of problems with jamming.

“By its nature, it’s designed to ruthlessly cut off service,” said Christopher Guttman-McCabe, regulatory vice president for CTIA. “What happens when there is an event and public safety gets deployed … and is in some way negatively impacted by the jammer?”

Manufacturers say managed access devices don’t interfere with 911 calls and other emergency radio communications, while jamming would cut off all such conversations and could affect areas outside prisons.

“We just don’t believe that that part type of technology can be controlled precisely enough,” said Terry Bittner, director of security products at the Maryland-based ITT Corp., which designs jamming systems for U.S. military uses.

“I personally think that we’re headed down a dangerous path, looking at jamming for that type of application.”

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