Equipment that jams cell phones will get its first federally sanctioned test inside a prison in Maryland this week, as state officials try to show Congress how the technology can prevent inmates from using the contraband devices to commit crimes, a governor's spokesman said Tuesday.
The state wants to show the equipment can be used without interfering with emergency response and legitimate signals outside the prison perimeter, said Shaun Adamec, Gov. Martin O'Malley's spokesman.
The Federal Communication Commission can only allow federal agencies — not state or local authorities — permission to jam cell phone signals. But a bill that passed the Senate and awaits action by the House would allow states to petition the FCC to block the use of cell phones from prisons.
Testing is set to begin Wednesday at the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Adamec said. The governor has strongly backed allowing states to use the jamming technology to battle the growing problem of cell phone use in prisons.
A bipartisan measure sponsored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., was approved by the Senate in September. A companion bill is in the House.
"I think all of this can help Senator Mikulski in her efforts to pass a bill, and hopefully if the FCC sees it coming they might just do it by regulation," O'Malley said.
The tests are being conducted to provide more information about the technology as the legislation is being considered.
Prisons around the nation have been trying to stem rising problems from prison inmates using cell phones to coordinate criminal activity from behind bars. Officials in New Jersey even intercepted a conference call among gang members from different prisons who were plotting retaliation against another gang member.
In Maryland, a Baltimore drug dealer used a cell phone from the city jail to plan the killing of a witness in 2007. In Texas, a state senator's life was threatened by a death row inmate who had a cell phone.
O'Malley and Mikulski asked the federal government last year to allow the testing to better inform Congress about the technology. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration agreed to hold the test this week. NTIA shares responsibility for managing the nation's communications network with the Federal Communications Commission, which has denied previous requests from states to test the technology.
In July, corrections directors in 26 states signed a petition to the FCC asking federal regulators' permission to jam cell phone signals inside state penitentiaries.
The FCC has authority over non-governmental radio communications, while the NTIA has authority over federal uses of the radio spectrum.
States have resorted to other ways of tracking illegal cell phones in prison, including the use of specially trained dogs to sniff out phones.
O'Malley expressed frustration that it has taken so long to get permission from the NTIA to conducted the test.
"We didn't need to get their permission to train all the dogs that we trained to sniff out cell phones, but they make us jump through a lot of hoops — no canine pun intended," O'Malley said.
Critics of cell phone jamming have expressed concerns that the technology could interfere with emergency response and legitimate cell phone use near prisons.
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