The obstacle keeping the Mississippi Department of Corrections from jamming illicit cell phones in its prisons is federal law.
Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Nathan “Burl” Cain told the Northside Sun that absent changes to federal law, he can’t employ the devices in state prisons.
“I wish we could jam them,” Cain said. “We’re working hard to keep the contraband cellphones and drugs out of our prisons.”
Cain said that his agency is using trained dogs to sniff out contraband phones, as they can detect the scent from the lithium batteries that power them. He said the MDOC plans to buy four more dogs to sniff out phones and will administer polygraph tests to potential employees at Walnut Grove, which was reopened with a bill signed into law in May by Gov. Tate Reeves and where the MDOC has its addiction services center.
Contraband phones are a major problem for corrections officials. They can be used for organizing escapes, running illegal operations, ordering hits on individuals outside the prison, facilitating sex trafficking and other crimes.
In 2017, multi-millionaire hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli, known as "Pharma Bro" was sentenced to federal prison on securities fraud charges. He was caught in 2019 using a contraband phone to communicate with his former associates and run his hedge fund from prison.
The way these jamming devices work is to emit a signal on the same frequencies used by cell phones at a power level that allows the signals to cancel each other out. The technology's usage expanded due to the Iraq War when highly-classified jammers were employed to disrupt cell signals and other transmitters used by insurgents to set off improvised explosive devices.
A failed 2019 bill by U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas would’ve change the law to allow the jammers. The Cellphone Jamming Reform Act of 2019 was co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Mississippi, and would’ve allowed state and federal penitentiaries to use the jamming devices.
Cain says that the bill has the support of U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, as well. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, was also a co-sponsor of the legislation.
The problem with using jamming devices is the Federal Communications Commission, which prohibits any jamming of cell phone signals, which the FCC says can interfere with 911 calls and day-to-day communications.
A case is being made that this wouldn’t be the case in corrections.
A 2019 report by U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration showed that the technology could be made to work. Officials used a jamming device in the maximum-security housing block of a state prison in South Carolina and found that an on-demand device was able to block illicit cell phones within the prison walls without disrupting cell service outside of the prison.
The report says that more research, such as how much power would be required to prevent contraband phones from operating within prisons, needs to be performed.
Mississippi lawmakers have passed some legislation to deal with the problem.
In 2019, then-Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law Senate Bill 2704, which authorizes circuit courts to issue orders to carriers to disable cell phone service.