As reported in the Trentonian on August 24, 2009, illicit cell phones remain a major problem inside New Jersey’s prisons, as inmates use the devices to secretly communicate with each other, intimidate witnesses and direct drug deals and other illegal activity. As a result, one New Jersey lawmaker is proposing to give corrections officials more tools to deal with the problem. 

Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, Jr. recently proposed legislation calling on the State to seek proposals for installing and operating a wireless communications device detection system. Another measure calls for blocking the transmission and reception of cell phone equipment carrying voice, text messages, images and other data within correctional facilities.  No hearings have been scheduled yet on either measure.

Officials would have to ensure that the latter technology would not interfere with emergency or public safety communications and that it operates at the lowest possible transmission level necessary, nor interfere with cell phone signals that originate and end outside the state’s correctional facilities. 

Nearly 400 cell phones have been seized in correctional facilities since August 2008, when officials started keeping track of confiscations, according to State data. More than a third were found in Northern State Prison in Newark, which houses the State’s most dangerous gang members, and four associated halfway houses. Officials say the smuggling problem has worsened in recent years as cell phone technology has improved. They note that newer, smaller phones are made with less metal, making them harder to detect. 

“Incarceration should be a time for reflection and rehabilitation, not for continuing criminal enterprises or intimidating witnesses,” Diegnan said. “We should take advantage of the technology we have to ensure offenders aren’t simply moving the bases of their operations behind bars thanks to cell phones.”

New Jersey, though, is not the only state dealing with a phone smuggling problem. About 3,500 phones have been found in California institutions this year, which is more than the entire total seized in 2008. In Texas, officers have found more than 900 phones so far, compared with 1,200 for all of last year.

“Illegal cell phone use by prisoners has become a leading worry throughout the country and has played a leading role in the expansion of gangs both behind bars and on our streets,” said Diegnan. “While we’ve taken aggressive steps here in New Jersey to combat it, these bills would simply boost our efforts and enhance public safety.”