Elgan: It's time to legalize cell phone jammers

Charles Manson was caught with a cell phone in his prison cell. Twice! Let's end the ban.

Cell phone jammers are illegal in the U.S. Even federal prisons aren't allowed to block cell phone calls made by convicted felons with smuggled phones.

The problem is huge. In California alone, where authorities have kept records on confiscated cell phones since 2007, guards found about 1,400 phones hidden inside prison cells in that first year. By 2009, the number found jumped to nearly 7,000. And in 2010, prison officials found a record 10,761 cell phones in the cells of California inmates.

Cell phones enable criminals to keep breaking the law, even behind bars. Mobsters can order hits. Gang members can receive "instructions" on carrying out revenge attacks on rival gangs inside the prison, and vice versa. Drug dealers can orchestrate deals. Murderers can taunt and terrorize the families of their victims. Extortionists can extort. Blackmailers can blackmail. Criminals awaiting trail can intimidate witnesses in order to thwart justice.

I don't think anyone still harbors the delusion that prisons "reform" inmates. Their main function is to get criminals off the streets in order to protect the public. But cell phones -- plus the ban on cell phone jammers -- puts crooks back on the streets, so to speak.

And what is the federal government doing about this crisis? Recently, they've launched a renewed crackdown on cell phone jamming. Which is fine. But why so much action on the abuse of jammers, and zero action on their beneficial use?

I wrote about this issue in this space a couple of years ago. In that column, I simply raised the question and asked for opinions. At the time, a bill was circulating in Congress called the Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009 that would have enabled governors or the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to petition the Federal Communications Commission for permission to use jammers in jails.

I actually thought the bill would pass. The measure did pass in the Senate, but was never voted on in the House, and so it never became law. The House of Representatives completely abrogated its duty to protect the public from criminals.

Since then, several events have taken place that clearly show why the ban on cell phone jammers should be modified to allow prison phone jamming.

Here's what has happened in the past two years:

  • Charles Manson was caught with two phones in two years.
  • A member of the racist hate gang, the Aryan Brotherhood, who was serving time for murdering an Oklahoma sheriff, used a smuggled BlackBerry to post pictures of himself and fellow inmates on Facebook. In some of those pictures, he appears to be taking drugs, drinking alcohol, brandishing weapons and generally having a good time in his prison cell. (Click on the link to see the pictures.)
  • A New Jersey convict was found guilty last year of arranging the murder of his former girlfriend from behind bars. The woman was a witness in a case against him, and while awaiting trial, he had threatened her from prison to change her testimony, which she did. Then the inmate orchestrated her killing, presumably to prevent her from later telling the truth about both the crime and his "witness tampering."
  • A Philadelphia gang member pleaded guilty last year to ordering a retaliatory murder and robbery of a rival, and also of acquiring a handgun for the crime -- all from behind bars using a cell phone.
  • A New Jersey prison official called for the allowance of cell phone jamming equipment in prisons. His request was ignored.

Legalized jamming works

Many countries allow limited cell phone jamming, including France, India, Mexico, New Zealand and others. Nearly all these countries allow the jamming of cell phones in prisons. Some of them allow it in schools, and even theaters. Many countries with current bans are considering the use of jammers in prisons.

While the use of cell phone jammers by private citizens and local businesses remains controversial, a global consensus is forming around the wisdom of jamming cell phones in prisons.

While other countries are increasingly allowing prison officials to block cell phone calls, the U.S. is a global laggard in protecting citizens from inmates.

The Communications Act of 1934, which is the musty old law that prevents the common sense jamming of phones to protect the public from convicts and terrorists, was the legislation that created the FCC. It also protects the public's right to communicate over the airwaves without interference from anyone, not even the government.

When Congress enacted the law, and when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it, they were thinking about radios and telephones. They surely didn't intend to enable convicted criminals to commit crimes from inside their prison cells.

It's time to end the ban and let prisons jam cell phones.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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