Members of the U.S. Senate recently passed legislation that would make it felony for prison inmates to have or use cell phones while incarcerated, as issues regarding mobile devices used by inmates — often to continue criminal business — continue to be debated on Capitol Hill.

Sponsored by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), the bill would make it felony for an inmate to use or possess a cell phone. In addition, the bill also includes penalties for those who provide an inmate with a cell phone.

“We believe prisoners should not have access to contraband phones and those who supply them should be punished severely,” CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent said in a prepared statement.

To become law, the bill still needs approval from the House of Representatives. Last year, the Senate passed a bill allowing correctional facilities to use jamming technology to block calls from contraband cell phones. That legislation also requires House approval to become law.

While both bills seek to halt cell-phone usage within correctional facilities, the methods proposed are very different and have become a source of heated debated within the communications industry. CTIA and other commercial wireless officials have opposed jamming technologies, citing concerns that jamming equipment could inadvertently block legitimate communications outside the correctional facilities. Many opponents of jamming also have expressed concern that legalization in prisons could lead to jamming in other public facilities.

Howard Melamed, CEO of CellAntenna, said properly engineered jamming systems will not disturb legitimate commercial signals. While anti-jamming laws should remain in place in public locations, they should not be used to protect inmate cell-phone use, he said.

“You can’t jam legal communications,” Melamed said during an interview. “But there is no law protecting illegal communications; it just doesn’t exist.”

Indeed, Melamed’s company conducted a survey of attendees at the recent CTIA show regarding the question of using jamming in correctional facilities. Of those surveyed, 71% favored allowing jamming in correctional facilities.

Although cell phones are prohibited in most correctional facilities, inmates using them to coordinate criminal activities continue to be a problem. Melamed said one system his company installed in a Texas correctional facility uncovered 239 cell phones in a wing with 400 inmates.

Other technologies and approaches can be used to address the cell-phone issue in correctional facilities, but they typically are at least three times more expensive to deploy and maintain than jamming systems — a significant factor when government revenues are decreasing in difficult economic times, Melamed said.

“Since it’s the taxpayer paying for this, let’s go with the most cost-effective solution, which is jamming,” he said.