The Department of Justice (DOJ) has gone on record as supporting efforts by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to block cellphones unlawfully in prisons, calling the devices a threat to public safety and prison security.

The late August letter from Assistant Attorney General Beth Williams, head of DOJ’s Office of Legal Policy, also says the issue should be a major priority for both agencies. The DOJ letter supporting FCC action also spoke of other “horrific” stories recounting how inmates could use contraband cellphones to order attacks on corrections officers or their family members, upload child pornography, run criminal enterprises while incarcerated, or assist them in planning and carrying out prison escapes.

In March, the FCC decided it would focus on the issue, and by a 3-0 vote opted to create a speedier process for contraband cellphone blocking systems to get agency approval to use commercial spectrum for their operations, and to otherwise make it easier to detect and block contraband cellphones in prisons.

Before the vote, the FCC had heard testimony on the dangers illegal cellphones can pose in prisons from the director of South Carolina’s Department of Corrections, who was accompanied by a captain in the state corrections service who survived a shooting that was ordered by an inmate possessing a contraband cellphone. The officer spoke in favor of cellphone jamming and similar technological fixes. The state corrections head had similarly raised the issue on at least two occasions with Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Cellphones make their way into corrections facilities in various ways. In some instances, they are flung or launched by catapult over perimeter fences or smuggled in by staff or visitors. There have even been cases where outside accomplices delivered contraband phones to inmates by drones.

Federal law has long permitted federal agencies, but not their state or local counterparts, to operate equipment that jams public airways, with violations punishable by imprisonment and daily fines of up to $11,000. South Carolina is just one of several states supporting plans by state or local firms to, for example, block all incoming or outgoing cellphone communications at a prison. Established telecom firms oppose those plans, arguing they would set a dangerous precedent, might harm cellphone reception for nearby residents, or even interfere with other law enforcement uses of the radio frequency spectrum.

In some states, notably California, there have been legislative proposals to stiffen penalties for inmates caught with contraband cell phones. For example, by making possession of one a separate crime that could extend an inmate’s sentence, rather than treating it as a mere violation of prison rules punishable by loss of privileges. And whether or not Congress and state legislatures opt to strengthen their legislation on contraband phones, organizations are taking greater notice of the issue. For example, some institutions have stepped up searches of staff or moved to innovative methods of detecting contraband phones, such as using specially trained dogs. There may also be additional technological advances that could either make jamming less likely to cause interference with outside areas or make it easier to detect or prevent cellphone use in correctional settings.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).