PENDLETON, Ind. (WISH) - Cell phones have very quickly become the single biggest problem inside Indiana's prisons. Now, some Indiana lawmakers are calling for a solution that could hang up the threat they pose for good. But, they're quickly finding that they've been blocked.
Their efforts follow an I-Team 8 investigation that showed inmates reaching out from behind bars to commit new crimes. Because of the danger this poses to the public, some in the Indiana General Assembly are calling for immediate action.
In response to I-Team 8's investigation, Rep. Tom Dermody (R-LaPorte) introduced a bill in January that would stiffen penalties. House Bill 1256 would require a court to impose a fine of at least $500 but not more than $5,000 on anyone convicted of trafficking a cell phone or other wireless communications device to an inmate. That fine would be in addition to a "class C felony" prison sentence of up to 8 years.
But, Dermody believes the true impact of the bill would be felt by inmates.
Under HB 1256, anyone who knowingly or intentionally possesses a cell phone while incarcerated could be charged with a "class A misdemeanor," which could get an inmate an additional year behind bars.
The bill passed through the House Committee on Courts and Criminal Code by an 11-0 vote on Wednesday, and Dermody--whose district sits in the backyard of Westville Penitentiary and the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City—says the increased penalties are a logical "next step."
"It's really the only short sighted solution we have. We can't ignore it. We're putting too many people, not only in the prison system, but in the community at risk," he said.
But, Dermody knows his bill won't fully stop the problem.
So, he's joining a growing chorus of lawmakers calling for another solution: blocking cell phone signals altogether.
"If we can use jammers within the Department of Corrections, we will solve this problem completely," Dermody said. "Otherwise, we're going to have to come and pick and choose to try to deter as much as possible. There's one only true resolution to this—to block the cell signals in our prisons."
"Jamming" devices work by blocking cell signals, rendering any phones within their range useless.
"To me, that's the simplest, best solution. It's common sense," Dermody said.
But, there's a problem with that solution: the Communications Act of 1934. It prohibits "any willful or malicious interference with licensed radio signals," which include signals from cell phones. The Federal Communications Commission argues that the jamming devices can interfere with cell phones outside of prison walls, and could prevent someone living or traveling near a prison from being able to call for help during an emergency.
"It's an $11,000 fine if you're caught putting in jammers in the Department of Corrections. Obviously, we can't do that to the state of Indiana. There is a bill federally that would resolve this problem, and hopefully we can see that move. But, for now, it's a no go," Dermody said.
Several previous bills have been introduced in Congress that would amend the Communications Act to allow "targeted" or "directional" cell phone jamming devices inside prisons. But, none have made it to the floor for a vote. In the meantime, the FCC continues to stand firm in its opposition to allowing the devices.
While that debate continues, IDOC is focusing instead on what it calls "managed access."
"It would be essentially putting up our own cell towers, so they go to the stronger signal. We can block access that way, and decide who gets through and who doesn't," Basinger said.
That method has already been successful in other states.
Three years ago, Mississippi put up the first "managed access" cell tower in the nation. It successfully blocked more than 216,000 cell phone calls during its first month of operation.
Other states have followed suit, including California, where all state prisons are set to be outfitted with cell towers by 2015.
"But, we do worry that cell phone technology may be able to circumvent that at some point in the future. And, the other problem is that it's about $800,000 plus per [tower] operation," Basinger said.
"That's a pretty big fiscal impact," Steuerwald said. "So, we may have to look to other solutions."
"We'll look at everything in this budget year, but we have to live within our means," agreed Dermody.
A TARGETED CRACKDOWN
In the interim, IDOC is focused on what it can control: enforcement within prison walls.
The department utilized grant funding to put extra officers in cell blocks across the state in September, for a targeted enforcement campaign, aimed at finding as many cell phones as possible. The effort began at Pendleton, then expanded to all other prisons. Officers worked extra hours, searching cells and inmates as many as six times a day.
"In September, we made a decision to have a full court press on cell phone interdiction," Basinger said. "And, it paid off. We confiscated 109 cell phones in the month of
September. 25 of those cell phones were confiscated here at Pendleton."
The department will be asking for additional money from legislature to try the program again, as Dermody's bill to stiffen penalties moves to the full House.
Francum hopes lawmakers are listening.
"This makes the prison walls very thin," he said. "These offenders are in here for a reason. This is a way [for inmates] to communicate to the outside world without "big brother" listening. We want to end that call and make them hang up."
As the year draws to a close, Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard says he's still waiting for something he asked for back in March.
The Indianapolis Zoo hosted its annual "Christmas at the Zoo" fundraiser Wednesday, but the festivities became a secondary celebration for one special family.
Black ice likely caused an accident Wednesday morning in Boone County.