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S. 952: Cellphone Jamming Reform Act of 2019


Should state prisons, where the vast majority of prisoners are located, be able to jam contraband cell phone signals for prisoners as federal prisons can?

Context

Historically, crime committed by prisoners remained within the prison, such as stabbings or illegally smuggling cigarettes. But cell phones with internet access now allow an unlimited reach.

For example, last year five South Carolina inmates were indicted for extorting 442 military members. Using cell phones from their prisons, the inmates pretended to be women on dating websites, flirting with male military members and sending nude photos of naked women found online, which they would claim were selfies.

They would then call the men and — using their real male voices rather than typing as women — pretend to be the fathers of the girls, saying their daughters were minors, and threatening to tell law enforcement about the possession of child pornography unless they send money. Inmates received more than $560,000 this way until they were caught.

Cell phones are illegal in prisons as it is, though some prisoners manage to sneak them in as contraband.

One solution would be to jam cell phone signals within a specified local area — such as a prison. However, under current law, only the federal government can do that. State governments cannot, even though only about 12% of prisoners are in federal prisons.

What the legislation does

The Cell Phone Jamming Reform Act would allow state governments to block cell phone signals in state prisons.

The bill is not a requirement, meaning states wouldn’t have to block such signals if they choose not to. But it would allow the option for the first time.

The House version was introduced on March 28 as bill number H.R. 1954 by Rep. David Kustoff (R-TN8). The Senate version was introduced the same day as bill number S. 952 by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR).

What supporters say

Supporters argue that the bill improves public safety, helping prevent convicted criminals from continuing their criminal activities while imprisoned that have ramifications outside the prison yards.

“Contraband cell phones have been a major problem in correctional facilities nationwide, and it is long past due that Congress take action and protect the public from criminals who continue their illegal activities from behind bars,” Rep. Kustoff said in a press release. “Inmates use these cellphones to engage in drug operations, sex trafficking, and organizing escapes that cause devastating consequences for public safety and empower these criminals to continue a life of crime.”

“Prisoners have used contraband cell phones to direct illegal activities outside prison walls, including hits on rivals, sex trafficking, drug operations, and business deals,” Sen. Cotton said in a separate press release. “Cellphone jamming devices can stop this but the Federal Communications Act doesn’t allow facilities to use this technology. [Under this bill] criminals serve their time without posing a threat to the general public.”

What opponents say

Opponents counter that the problem has less to do with contraband cell phone signals, and more to do with the legitimate permissible calls.

“Prisons themselves help create the demand for contraband by making it very difficult and expensive for prisoners to call their loved ones through legitimate channels,” David Fathi, director of the ACLU National Prison Project, told Pew Trusts.

Jailhouse landline calls can cost as much as $56 for four minutes. Fathi told YourErie.com that a better approach would be to decrease the cost of prison landline calls so that inmates won’t resort to contraband cell phones.

Odds of passage

The Senate version has two cosponsors, both Republicans. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

The House version has one cosponsor, a Republican. It awaits a potential vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Last updated Apr 26, 2019. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Mar 28, 2019.


Cellphone Jamming Reform Act of 2019

This bill allows a state or federal correctional facility to operate a jamming system to interfere with cellphone signals within inmate housing facilities.