Prosecutors Want Congress to Let Prisons Jam Cell Phones

January 25, 2023

A group of 22 top state prosecutors sent a letter Wednesday asking Congress to pass legislation allowing state prisons to jam the signals of cell phones smuggled to inmates.

While all 22 prosecutors were Republicans, South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, who’s leading the effort, said there were plans to reach out to Democratic state prosecutors, arguing that the issue is non-partisan. 

“Simply, we need Congress to pass legislation giving states the authority to implement a cell phone jamming system to protect inmates, guards, and the public at large,” said the letter, which was sent to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). 

The letter reportedly cites a handful of criminal incidents the attorneys say were orchestrated by inmates using contraband cell phones, including the worst prison riot in 25 years: a 2018 gang-related rampage at a South Carolina prison that raged for more than seven hours and left seven inmates dead. Corrections officials blamed the organized violence in part on smuggled cell phones.

A recent report by The Marshall Project found that inmates were using smuggled cell phones for activities like taking online classes and doing their own and other inmates’ legal advocacy, as well as making money while behind bars by investing in bitcoin.

Earlier this month, however, prosecutors in the Western District of Oklahoma convicted 69 members of the Universal Aryan Brotherhood gang and their accomplices of a multi-year meth trafficking scheme—networked through contraband cell phones from state prison cells. The bust included a seizure of 62 firearms and more than $400,000 worth of illegal drugs. 

In order to render the smuggled phones inoperable, prosecutors are calling for a change in a nearly century-old communications law that prevents state prisons from using jamming technology to nullify illegal cell signals.

In 2021 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a ruling that would allow state prison systems to apply for permits to identify and turn off illegal cell signals, one by one, in collaboration with cell phone providers. South Carolina was the first state to apply to use the technology, but to date no action has been taken on its application.

Congress has previously considered jamming legislation, but no bills have been signed into law or even had a hearing. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) reintroduced the most recent measure on jamming prison cell phones in August in the 117th Congress.

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