Texas prison officials want mobile phone jamming technology

By Mike Ward
Austin American-Statesman

Buoyed by the successful test of cell-phone jamming technology Friday in a South Carolina prison, Texas officials confirmed Tuesday that they are working on a similar demonstration in the Lone Star State.

House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden said he has requested a test of the technology at a Texas prison "as soon as it can be worked out."

The proposed date and site: Dec. 18 at the Travis County state jail in Austin.

"It would take a change in federal law to allow jamming such as this, but I would hope there could be some action to change the law sooner rather than later," Madden said. "Federal law gives federal agencies the authority to jam cell signals, and I think it's strange the states could have inmates just as dangerous as the feds, and we can't jam the cell signals."

Michelle Lyons, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs the state's prison system, said officials were working Tuesday to get the demonstration set up.

Priscilla Doyle, a spokeswoman for CellAntenna Corp., the Florida-based company that conducted the South Carolina test, said the firm has agreed to do the Texas test.

The issue has been a hot topic after condemned double murderer Richard Lee Tabler made cell phone calls from death row to state Sen. John Whitmire and this reporter last month.

Tabler, his mother and his sister were busted on contraband charges after Whitmire - who chairs the powerful Senate committee that oversees prisons - reported the calls.

Eighteen cell phones and related paraphernalia have been found on death row since Gov. Rick Perry ordered a zero-tolerance policy on contraband in state prisons, a move that brought the first lockdown and coordinated sweep for contraband in all of Texas' 112 state prisons in a decade.

Whitmire earlier demanded that state prison officials begin jamming cell signals at state prisons in the interest of public safety.

But the Federal Communications Commission recently warned that tests like the one in South Carolina are illegal under a law that is 73 years old.

Based on Friday's test, Josh Gelinas, a spokesman for the South Carolina Department of Corrections, said corrections officials there plan to petition the FCC for permission to conduct a pilot program using the technology.

Gelinas and Doyle said Friday's test jammed cell phone traffic in a contained area inside a South Carolina prison but did not interfere with radio traffic between correctional officers or cell traffic outside the prison.

"It was very successful," Gelinas said.

Earlier, FCC officials said federal agencies - but not state or local ones - can get permission to use the technology, which prevents cell tower transmissions from reaching the phone.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has publicly offered support to law enforcement and prisons seeking to use jamming equipment, expressing a willingness to work with them on the issue. FCC spokesman Robert Kenny said Martin will "give careful consideration" to South Carolina's request, according to an Associated Press report.

Madden said Texas' two U.S. senators and several congressmen are looking at filing legislation to allow state prison officials to jam cell phone signals inside prisons.

Asked about cell phone jamming Tuesday, Perry said: "We're not going to do what we cannot do. Maybe there's some middle ground where we can find a way to keep criminals from using cell phones in ways harmful to our citizens. We don't agree with the FCC that jammers in places like prisons are necessarily a bad thing."

Copyright 2008 The Austin American-Statesman

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