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Congress Votes to Ban Cell Phones in Prison

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Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspapers –

WASHINGTON (NNPA) - Inmates in federal prisons will have a tougher time using cell phones and wireless devices after both chambers of Congress recently voted in favor of a bill restricting their use behind bars.

Congress voted July 20 to close a loophole in federal law by restricting the use or possession of cell phones and classifying them as contraband. Officials said that with these devices, prisoners conduct a large amount of unlawful activity including credit card fraud, ordering gang hits and running drug operations. Currently, when inmates are discovered with the devices, the hardware is confiscated but the inmates are rarely punished.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the sponsor of the Senate measure, said a recent report found that correctional officers are the major culprits in smuggling cell phones into prisons. She said that in her state, inmates pay up to $1,000 for a phone. In one case, a correctional officer made $150,000 in one year just from selling the devices to prisoners, she said. according to the Associated Press.

With the new legislation, those convicted of selling cell phones to inmates would face up to a year in prison.

“It’s a simple process,” Ojore Lutalo, an inmate of New Jersey State Prison told NPR. “It’s not a big deal getting a cell phone. You have to understand that that is possible due to the level of corruption among the prison staff. If it wasn’t for their corruption, it wouldn’t be possible.”

Many officials agree with Lutalo and say that unlike drugs and money, cell phones cannot be smuggled through the mail and inmate visits because they would be picked up by metal detectors. “It’s a huge issue, and it’s a complex issue,” Bill Sondervan, a former Maryland prison official told NPR. “I had 8,000 employees in 27 prisons. I couldn’t be everywhere. And the way you really do that is through trying to instill in your staff that we’re all in this together.”

Prison officials have examined ways to block the phones’ service, but believe it may interfere with their radios and other critical devices.

In spite of the hesitation to implement ways to block the phones’ service, EDO, a Maryland defense intelligence company, was commissioned by the FBI to create technology that monitors cell phone usage, and devised a system that detects radio frequencies and notifies officials.

In addition to this technology, The (Salinas, Calif.) Californian found that many prisons across the country have enlisted cell phone-sniffing canines that can find stashed wireless devices as they do other contraband.

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