Last week, the FCC hosted an interesting webinar about the use of contraband cellular devices in correctional facilities, an ongoing problem that has been the subject of increased attention from federal lawmakers and policymakers during the past year. The webinar proved to be the source of many informed viewpoints, but there was little consensus on the best way to address the issue.

There was clear consensus that a problem exists. In every state, corrections officials are confiscating thousands of cellular communications devices from inmates on an annual basis, and no one is pretending that they are getting them all. With these devices, inmates have proven they can be almost as much of a threat behind bars as they were before incarceration, orchestrating illegal activities from harassing witnesses to ordering hits on enemies.

“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t need some help,” said Jon Ozmint, director of the South Carolina Department of Correction, who recounted during the webinar the near-fatal shooting of a corrections officer at his home that was ordered by an inmate with a cell phone.

Traditionally, corrections officials have used detection as the main weapon to deter such activities. From sniffing dogs to metal detectors to RF-based systems that locate transmissions from mobile devices, various techniques have been employed to help aid the effort to confiscate the contraband devices, but often only after an inmate has delivered his/her communication.

And the mobile devices have continued to pour into the corrections facilities, as they have become some of the most valued contraband items behind prison walls. With a single pre-paid phone reportedly being worth $1,500 or more to inmates, the laws of supply and demand have created a very ready marketplace within corrections facilities.

With this in mind, many in the corrections community are seeking technological solutions that would render the devices useless, thereby removing the demand for them among inmates. The two most discussed technological solutions have been jamming and managed access.

For the most part, jamming is illegal in the United States, so it is not an option at the moment. In fact, just getting permission to test the technology is difficult in this country, although the solution is used in other parts of the world. Ozmint said more jamming tests should be supported and — if the technology is deemed useful — laws should be rewritten to allow jamming in corrections facilities, particularly those that prohibit cellular communications by even corrections officers or visitors.

“We need to have every tool in the tool bag,” Ozmint said.

The newest tool is managed access, a system in which all calls from a prison facility go to a single tower, but only calls from pre-authorized phone numbers are completed. Cellular carriers favor this approach instead of jamming, because jamming signals can “leak” outside of the walls of a corrections facility to block legitimate calls.

But Ozmint noted that the same phenomenon can happen with managed access — a call from just outside a prison wall could be blocked inadvertently, because it does not come from a pre-authorized number.

Terry Bittner, director of security products for ITT, said after the meeting that federal and corrections officials should examine the matter from the perspective of the overall contraband threat, not just in terms of stopping the illegal communications. Bittner noted that detection systems — ITT offers one — are less expensive up front than jamming or managed access. In addition, the benefit of detection systems is that locating illegal cell phones also can result in gathering intelligence on other contraband in a corrections facility.

Improving overall systems throughout corrections facilities is a must, and there is no technological “silver bullet,” Bittner said.

“People are looking for technology to replace people doing good work,” Bittner said during an interview. “I don’t think there is any one technology that is going to make the problem go away.”

Meanwhile, all of these technological tools cost money, and finding funds to pay for any of the alternatives is difficult in an environment of significant budget cuts — and a cost-effective approach for a smaller facility may be prohibitively expensive in a larger corrections campus, and vice versa. Bittner acknowledged that vendors likely would be more willing to invest research-and-development dollars toward solving the problem if there was a promise that significant funding would be available to purchase solutions.

In short, the more people look at this problem, the more difficult it becomes to find a solution—and the notion that unlicensed cognitive devices operating in the 700 MHz band could be on the market in a few years just adds to the complications, because none of the existing technologies currently deal with something like that.

It is likely that multiple technological and systemic methods will have to be employed to crack down on the problem of contraband communications in corrections facilities. The FCC event was a very good start, but further work is needed on many fronts to determine the most cost-effective answers to the problem in the different corrections environments.

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.