Across Mississippi and the rest of the nation, a dangerous new epidemic is occurring in prisons and correctional facilities. In years past smuggled drugs were the top concern of prison officials, but the newest threat is something so common it can be found in the pocket or purse of nearly every American: cellular phones.

Today’s prison inmates are using smuggled cell phones for a number of nefarious reasons, including planning prison escapes, plotting murders and gang-related activities, and other crimes. To help address this widespread public safety concern, I have cosponsored legislation that aims to prevent prison inmates from using smuggled cell phones.

The Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009 would allow states to petition the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to operate wireless jamming devices in correctional facilities. The legislation earned an important endorsement earlier this month from the Senate Commerce Committee, on which I serve, and is now awaiting action by the full Senate.

A WIDESPREAD PROBLEM

Mississippi has not been immune to this growing problem. Last year, state officials confiscated nearly 2,000 phones that were available for criminals to plan crime from their jail cells. In June, an inmate in a Mississippi prison escaped and is accused of shooting a Nashville police sergeant. The inmate was able to plot his jail break using a smuggled prison cell phone.

Our state is not alone in dealing with this issue. Last year in California, prison officials confiscated nearly 2,800 cell phones, which was nearly double the number recovered the year before. Also last year, a Texas state senator received a threatening phone call from a death row inmate using a smuggled cell phone. And in Maryland, a man awaiting trial for homicide has recently been accused of using an illegal prison cell phone to plot the murder of a key witness in his pending trial.

COMMON SENSE APPROACH

The Safe Prisons Communications Act takes a common sense approach to stopping this growing problem. Because it is currently illegal to intentionally interfere with wireless communications, the bill requires the FCC to establish rules and criteria for the approval of jamming systems and devices for use by correctional facilities.

The measure also puts safeguards in place to ensure emergency communications from prison officials are not disrupted. Each correctional facility that receives approval to use jamming devices would be required to have a documented procedure to shut down the systems in any security events at the prison, such as a fire or riot. Additionally, the legislation takes steps to ensure the jamming devices do not fall into the wrong hands, specifying they may only be purchased and operated by approved correctional facilities.

Prison officials in Mississippi and elsewhere in the country work hard to keep their inmates at bay. However, recent advancements in technology – including the proliferation of affordable cell phones – have made the job more difficult for America’s correctional systems.

Our prisons are meant to stop crime, not further it. We must act now to give America’s prison officials the tools needed to ensure it is no longer business as usual for those who are locked up. The Safe Prisons Communications Act would help do so.

Senator Roger Wicker
8/14/9