Cell phones in prison

The illegal use of wireless phones by state prison inmates might lend a new meaning to the phrase "cell phone."

States ought to have the authority to jam contraband cell phones used by inmates inside prisons. But current federal law prevents states from doing so.

S.C. prison chief Jon Ozmint has lined up a company he says is capable of jamming cell phones in prisons without affecting phone users outside the prison. He would like to demonstrate the technology for federal officials, but representatives of the wireless industry have urged the Federal Communications Commission to stand fast and not allow the demonstration.

We can understand why wireless phone companies would want to severely limit the use of jamming technology. In the wrong hands, jamming equipment could render cell phones useless within a large service area with potentially dire consequences.

But we also can understand the desire of state officials to control cell phone use within prisons. According to Ozmint, the contraband phones have become a new form of cash behind bars and often are used to plan escapes or threaten people on the outside.

South Carolina prison officials say they already are using standard methods such as scanners and searches to uncover cell phones. But phones still are getting in.

That is not surprising. Prisoners are ingenious at evading normal security procedures to bring contraband behind bars, everything from weapons to drugs, especially if they have a cohort outside the prison.

Cell phones, which now can be barely larger than a credit card, would be easy to smuggle into a prison. And once inside, they would be easy to hide.

We agree that prison officials should use every conventional means to find contraband cell phones. But if prisoners continue to evade detection, jamming seems like a logical solution.

This would require a narrow, carefully defined exception to current law. But we suspect that could be accomplished without opening the door to widespread abuse of jamming devices.

If Ozmint continues with his plan to stage a demonstration of the jamming equipment, it will be interesting to see how the FCC reacts.