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How the Telecom Lobby Put a Cellphone in Charles Manson's Hands

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Once again, money and politics trump common sense and the public interest.

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The news that Charles Manson was making calls and sending texts from his prison cell using a smuggled LG flip phone has been making the rounds over the past few days.

As to why Manson was using the device, Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections, told the Los Angeles Times, "I don't know, but it's troubling that he had a cellphone since he's a person who got other people to murder on his behalf."

This is not a new problem. Prison inmates have used contraband mobile phones for years, which, behind bars, range in price from $300 for a low-end device to $1,500 for an iPhone (AAPL) or BlackBerry (RIMM), to direct and carry out criminal activity from behind bars in ever-increasing numbers.

Captain Robert Johnson, a South Carolina corrections officer, survived a shooting at his home which was planned by an inmate using a smuggled cellphone.

Patrick Byers, a Baltimore man awaiting trial on murder charges, used a smuggled cellphone to order the execution of Carl Lackl, a witness scheduled to testify against him in court.

Richard Tabler, a Texas death row inmate, used a smuggled cellphone to call state senator Richard Whitmire, chairman of the Texas Criminal Justice Committee, and threaten his daughters' lives.
"I want to know how an inmate on death row gets a cellphone in the first place, and then how they and other inmates can make thousands of calls in a month without getting caught," Whitmire told the Austin American-Statesman.

Here's how:

In August, the Cell Phone Contraband Act (S. 1749) was passed. It adds one year to the sentences of federal prisoners caught with cellphones. However, in California -- where Charles Manson currently resides as a guest of the state -- inmates found in possession of a cellphone can only be charged with a rules violation, leading to a loss of privileges. Why? California's prisons are so hopelessly overcrowded, a panel of federal judges ordered a reduction of the inmate population by 46,000. Thus, the California Senate Public Safety Committee put in place a policy prohibiting new felonies from being added to the state penal code, so as not to risk further adding to the overcrowding.

So, cellphones keep flowing into state prisons -- hidden inside footballs thrown by accomplices into recreation yards, brought in by visitors, and, more alarmingly, sold by unscrupulous guards who can make thousands of extra dollars per year this way.

In October, South Carolina Corrections Director Jon Ozmint, along with 32 other public officials, asked for permission to use signal-jamming devices to render cellphones useless behind prison walls.

Signal-jamming devices are used in New Zealand, France, Ireland, and India, among other countries. And state prisons would like to follow suit. But the federal Communications Act of 1934, written well before anyone had so much as heard of a cellphone, makes it illegal for any entity other than the federal government to block radio signal broadcasts.

Updating the 75 year-old rules would seem to be a good place to start in the name of public safety, though the Cellular Telephone Industry Association (CTIA), boasting a membership made up of every big name in the industry like Verizon (VZ), AT&T (T), and Sprint Nextel (S), has successfully pointed out to the FCC that only Congress is authorized to do so.

CTIA, which is led by Steve Largent, former Seattle Seahawks wide receiver and Congressman who sat on the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, has gone to great lengths to preserve its grip on its members' turf. Last year, when Washington, DC Department of Corrections director Devon Brown requested an informational demonstration by jamming equipment manufacturer CellAntenna, CTIA filed a petition with the US Court of Appeals, that read:

Operation of such 'jamming technology' is flatly illegal under Section 333 of the Communications Act, and the commission lacks the statutory authority to authorize violations of this congressional directive protecting the rights of authorized users of the wireless spectrum. Moreover, the decision to authorize the demonstration -- made without notice to the public or affected parties, without opportunity for comment, without consideration of any evidence regarding the potential consequences to legitimate transmission of operating the contemplated technology, and with no exigent public-safety need -- is the very essence of arbitrary and capricious decision-making.

Ozmint says the industry is simply "profit-hungry" and that "They would rather continue to allow inmates to make hits on cell phones than they would to sacrifice the profits they're making on those pre-paid minutes."
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