meshDETECT, Secure Prison Cell Phone Solutions ™
meshDETECT, Secure Prison Cell Phone Solutions ™

This Is a War

Prisons want jamming technology to stop criminal activity, but critics warn there would be dire consequences if jamming was allowed to propagate.

In June the Department of Justice released a report that declared a solution to prevent criminal activity from happening within prisons: it successfully tested a jammer that would block mobile signals from smuggled cell phones inside a Maryland prison.

Throughout the corrections world the news spread fast. For South Carolina Corrections director Brian Stirling, the news affirmed his beliefs: to stop the flood of mobile phones streaming into prisons, jamming technology was the best, cheapest, and most efficient way to go.

A jammer can be a small, inexpensive box that transmits a continuous tone to antennas, effectively stopping any cell phone from making or receiving calls. Jamming equipment is generally cheap—a Google search turned up dozens of options ranging in price from $119 to $650—and easily available to order online.

But critics warn there would be dire consequences if jamming was allowed to propagate. They argue that there are numerous nefarious reasons—money, control of new systems, and criminal motivations—behind the push to legalize jamming through the corrections system.

“Allowing jamming technology is a very slippery slope, and once that door is opened we can never turn back,” Ben Levitan, a North Carolina-based wireless communication expert who has advised correction facilities, told me by telephone. “I’ve been in this business for 30 years. If someone is advocating for new technology they probably know someone who sells equipment or has a piece themselves.”

Levitan and other technology experts interviewed for this article say there are other effective solutions to control the flood of cell phones in prisons, such as detection systems, which track, locate and identify radio signals, and managed-access systems, in which phone companies filter calls using a predetermined whitelist.

The bigger problem is the high cost of calls from prison, jamming opponents say, and the need for inmates to be in touch with their loved ones.

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