Prisons want cell phone jammers to prevent inmates from communicating with the outside world

In June, the Justice Department released a report that declared a solution to prevent criminal activity in prisons: it successfully tested a jammer capable of blocking the mobile signals of cell phones smuggled into a Maryland jail.


In the penitentiary world, the news spread quickly. For South Carolina’s director of corrections, Brian Stirling, the news confirmed his beliefs: to stop the flow of cellphones streaming in prisons, cell phone jammer technology was the most effective, least expensive more economical.

A scrambler can be a small inexpensive box that transmits a continuous tone to the antennas, thus preventing any cell phone from making or receiving calls. The scrambling hardware is generally inexpensive – a Google search has revealed dozens of options ranging from $ 119 to $ 650 – and readily available for online ordering.

But critics warn that there would be disastrous consequences if the interference was allowed to spread. They argue that there are many negative reasons – money, control of new systems and criminal motivations – behind the desire to legalize the interference through the correctional system.

According to Levitan, an alternative to scrambling is to use inexpensive small box antennas (about $ 400) that can cover a block, containing about ten cells. The boxes must be wired together, but once the system is in place, all phones automatically connect to these antennas and the signal can not leave the closed yard. This type of approach can block calls as long as the facilities are monitoring the equipment, says Levitan, without the brute force of jamming technology.

Another option is managed access systems, which the FCC currently licenses to test or install. Matt Caesar, a senior executive at GTL, an integrated technology firm providing correctional services, says that installing managed access systems in a medium-sized or large institution costs between $ 750,000 and $ 2 million, depending on how logistics of the installation. Institutions provide a list of phone numbers, a white list, to managed access companies that can make phone calls from prisons. Mobile phone companies, such as AT & T, Sprint and T-Mobile, are blocking the rest of the calls.

Last year, the National Institute of Justice released a report on the success of controlled access systems in a Mississippi state penitentiary and a city jail in Baltimore. Both institutions struggled to adjust signals and monitor the entire network, blocking calls to the jails and ultimately allowing calls to and from institutions.

Maintenance of managed access systems can be extremely expensive. Mobile operators frequently change their radio frequencies, allowing calls to enter the system. A correctional center should pay a technician to constantly monitor the waves and adjust the machines, said César. “It’s not really a viable solution for small communities,” he said.

In a study conducted in 2018, T-Mobile found that operational costs between managed access systems and interference were negligible, and that managed access in general was a more versatile tool for blocking mobile phones. The study found that to install any type of interference, the correctional facility would need a system based on accuracy, which is more expensive.

Stirling is open to managed access systems. He is currently setting up a test at Lee County Correctional, where Johnson has been shot, but does not think he will be able to completely block all calls.

“For me, these technological choices are like having a wall or a door. A door through which certain things can pass. A wall that nothing can cross. What would you like? Stirling said.

Although Stirling is a strong jam supporter, the reality of throwing is more difficult.

The Communications Act of 1934 prohibits interference for any state or local entity and for personal use. The FCC states that jamming creates serious security risks; it can prevent emergency information from reaching law enforcement and dilute radio signals on the ground.

Between approximately 2009 and 2018, the law enforcement agency conducted 173 actions against persons using jamming equipment, including fines ranging from a few thousand dollars to $ 25,000 and over and confiscation of property.