Bureau of Prisons Seeks Ways to Block Contraband Cellphone Use

Cell phones are the type of contraband most commonly found in federal prisons. The Bureau of Prisons is seeking ways to block contraband devices without interfering with authorized phones.

Cell phones are the type of contraband most commonly found in federal prisons. The Bureau of Prisons is seeking ways to block contraband devices without interfering with authorized phones.

By Christopher Zoukis

Although a federal statute (the Contraband Cell Phone Act of 2010) forbids federal inmates to possess cell phones or other wireless communications devices, cell phones are in fact the type of contraband most commonly found in federal prisons. In one three-year stretch, between fiscal years 2012 and 2014, more than 8,700 cellphones were recovered from federal prison facilities.

According to a Justice Department report last year that unfavorably compared private prisons under contract to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to federally-run facilities, eight times as many contraband cellphones were confiscated in a sample of privately-run federal prisons than in a comparable group of facilities run by the federal government.

BOP is seeking to prevent contraband cellphones from being used by federal prison inmates for unmonitored communications with non-incarcerated accomplices – whether to plot escapes or pose other security risks, carry out schemes to eliminate or intimidate potential witnesses against them, or even to plan and carry out new crimes – and is studying whether there is a workable way to create a blackout-zone around prison grounds. It envisages devising a system capable of blocking use of contraband phones or other communications devices without interfering with authorized phones.

In less than a year and a half, the agency has twice sent out a “Request for Information” inviting comment from current or would-be contractors on ways that active or passive systems can achieve that goal, and extended last year’s Jan. 29 deadline for receipt of comment until March 30 this year. The purpose of the notice, according to the BOP, is to acquire data on available products to help in the development of specifications for products and systems capable of detecting and blocking use of contraband wireless communications devices.

Federal communications law forbids broad-scale communications jamming, so BOP needs some other solution for finding and blocking unauthorized signals. The agency’s information request tells vendors who offer solutions in which jamming plays a part that they must also explain how their proposal would be legal in this country.

According to the criteria spelled out in the information request, BOP is seeking data on solutions or equipment that can detect the largest possible number of frequencies, provide a detailed analysis of how the contraband equipment is working, identify its network and physical location, record and store the device’s history, distinguish authorized from unauthorized equipment while blocking only the unauthorized, and not impact service to members of the public who reside outside the facility or collect information on them.

In addition, the agency says it’s looking for “ruggedized” equipment that will stand up to environmental forces and will be either tamper-proof or tamper-resistant. BOP also says potential suppliers should provide detailed descriptions of how their solutions work, including all hardware, software and peripherals. The notice warns that applications that merely claim compatibility with the agency’s requirements but fail to provide required details will be regarded as failing to give a responsive answer.

In the notice, BOP makes clear it wants solutions suitable for all BOP settings, whether rural, suburban or urban, and is only interested in solutions that are available as non-custom commercial products, noting the agency does not bankroll research and development of technological products. 

Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.