WASHINGTON — The man calling Texas state Sen. John Whitmire could recite the names, ages and addresses of Whitmire's daughters. The lawmaker was terrified: The caller was Richard Tabler, a two-time convicted murderer calling from death row.
When Whitmire began to investigate how the inmate got a cell phone in prison, Tabler threatened to have him killed.
On Wednesday, Whitmire pleaded with the Senate Commerce Committee to back legislation allowing technology in prisons that would "jam" cell phone transmissions. The October incident made it clear that current techniques for finding and confiscating prisoners' cell phones don't work, he said.
Wireless industry representatives, however, are concerned jamming technology would work too well, blocking legitimate cell phone calls — or calls to 911 — from those who live near prisons and aren't incarcerated.
If the contraband cell phones are left in place, they said, they can be wiretapped to get valuable information.
The Senate panel is considering a bill sponsored by its top Republican, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, which would allow cell phone jamming technology in prisons. The Federal Communications Commission has been barred from blocking any kind of radio signal since 1934.
Senators routinely expressed support for the bill in the hearing, with Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, signing on as a co-sponsor. With the addition of Begich, the Senate bill has eight co-sponsors, including Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. and Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.
"The states clearly have a responsibility" to address the cell phone problem, said Hutchison, "but we have a responsibility as well."
Two new items will be added to the bill next week, Hutchison said, that will address concerns raised by the wireless industry advocates. One would require prisons to get approval from the FCC before using the jamming devices, and the other would require the devices to be tested before being put to use.
With a cell phone, an inmates can organize an uprising inside the prison, plot an escape, or conspire to kill witnesses set to testify against them, law enforcement officials said, adding that the problem is growing. Also, traditional methods of finding cell phones — random searches, sniffing dogs and body orifice scanners — are expensive and don't always work.
"My family was in danger, as well as all the citizens of the state of Texas," Whitmire said. "I can't stress to you how serious a public safety issue I think this is. We need this additional tool."
Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, has introduced similar legislation in the House of Representatives, and prison officials in 26 states have signed a petition to allow cell phone jamming.
Wireless industry advocates, however, are skeptical that prisons could properly install the technology so it won't interfere with legitimate calls. Inmates have been smuggling letters in and out of prisons for decades, noted Richard Mirgon, the president-elect of the International Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials in Carson City, Nev.
"We don't believe (jamming) is effective," he said. "Some inmate with an engineering background, or who is just plain creative, will find a way around this."
Cell phone jamming is "not a panacea," and new technology that locates cell phones would be a better solution, added Steve Largent, a former Oklahoma congressman and the president of CTIA, a wireless industry advocacy group whose clients include Verizon, T-Mobile, and AT&T.
The phones are usually smuggled in by corrupt guards, thrown over prison walls, or hidden in packages shipped into the prison, said John M. Moriarty, Inspector General for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The numbers are growing. Last year California prison officials said they confiscated over 2,800 cell phones, more than double from the year before, said Gary D. Maynard, the secretary of Maryland's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
The phones can net smugglers big bucks — Tabler, the death row inmate who threatened Whitmire, paid $2,100 for his. They can also be used by multiple inmates. The cell phone Tabler used logged over 2,800 phone calls the month before it was discovered and was used by nine death row inmates.
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