Prison guard attack renews phone-jam debate

By Meg Kinnard
Sunday, September 19, 2010

COLUMBIA, S.C. - South Carolina authorities who have helped push for permission to block cellphone signals inside prisons say an officer in charge of keeping out contraband was nearly killed at his home - in an attack planned with a smuggled phone.

Corrections Department Capt. Robert Johnson was getting ready to go to work at Lee Correctional Institution about 50 miles east of Columbia one day in March. About 5:30 a.m., a man broke down the front door of Johnson's mobile home, shooting the 15-year prison veteran six times in the chest and stomach.

"I heard a yell, 'Police!' " said Johnson, 57, who thinks the intruder might have been impersonating an officer. "I came out the bathroom door, and there was this person there. I really don't remember the rest. From the trauma, my mind just went blank."

Six months into his recovery, Johnson and his bosses want Congress to change a 1934 law that says the Federal Communications Commission can grant permission to jam the public airwaves only to federal agencies, not state or local ones.

The cellphone industry says the jamming methods some states want can interfere with emergency communications and legitimate cellphone use in the area. They advocate other, potentially more expensive technology that they say can be more precise but has seen only limited use.

Although authorities say Johnson is the first known corrections officer in the United States harmed by a hit ordered from an inmate's cellphone, other people have been targets. In 2005, a New Jersey inmate serving time for shooting at two police officers used a smuggled phone to order a fatal attack on his girlfriend, who had given authorities information leading to his arrest.

Two years later, a drug dealer in Baltimore's city jail used a cellphone to successfully plan the killing of a witness who had identified him as the gunman in a previous killing. And in 2008, a Texas death row inmate used a cellphone to threaten the life of a state senator.

After that attempt, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rep. Kevin Brady, both Texas Republicans, introduced companion bills that would allow states to petition the FCC for permission to jam calls. The Senate passed its version, but the House version has languished, and supporters don't expect it to move forward soon.

"It's something that needs to be done," Johnson said. "It will make the place more safe for the employees that are there and the public."

'Like a scalpel'

Opponents of jamming say the technology could play havoc with communications between guards and paramedics, not to mention citizens near prisons.

"Signals don't stop and start at defined borders," said John Walls, a spokesman for CTIA - The Wireless Association, which represents cellphone companies.

Walls and others opposed to jamming advocate alternative ways to combat smuggled phones, including something called managed access, which uses radio frequencies to block signals from some cellphones while allowing other calls and 911 transmissions to go through. Such technology works "like a scalpel" instead of simply blocking all calls, Steve Largent, CTIA's chief executive, wrote on his blog recently.

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