A scheduled demonstration of an electronic device that jams cell phone signals, rendering a phone inside a prison useless, has been canceled four days before it was to have been held, according to Texas prison officials.
The demonstration was scheduled at the state jail in Austin by Florida-based vendor CellAntenna but prison officials nixed it Monday, saying such a test would violate federal law. The decision drew fire from some Texas lawmakers.
"Through our ongoing dialogue with the Texas attorney general's office, we have come to the conclusion that proceeding with this presentation would violate federal law, and we are not willing to violate the law in the pursuit of protecting it," said Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Attorney General Greg Abbott said that although he supports jamming cell calls as a way to curb prison contraband, his office had no choice but to advise prison officials that the planned test would violate federal law, the Austin American-Statesman reported Tuesday in an online story.
"They could be exposed to legal consequences" if the test had gone ahead, Abbott said.
Death row has been the most highly visible source of illegal cell phone activity since a condemned inmate in October made threatening calls to Sen. John Whitmire, prompting a statewide prison lockdown and shakedown for contraband that prison officials said turned up 132 phones, 118 phone chargers and 183 inmate-made weapons. More phones and phone equipment then turned up on death row after the lockdown ended last month.
South Carolina recently had a successful demonstration of the jamming device. Officials said it successfully blocked cell calls inside a prison -- without interfering with nearby cell traffic.
Abbott expressed concerns about possible legal consequences had Texas prison officials proceeded with the test.
However, South Carolina and federal officials say no one has been charged since the demonstration in that state.
Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who's the Senate's most senior member, believes the demonstration should proceed.
"I wonder whether they don't want to jam their own cell phones and that's the reason they don't want to do the test ... or that special interests don't want the jamming, like the phone companies that are afraid the jamming will affect signals outside the prisons, which we know doesn't happen," Whitmire said.
Howard Melamed, CellAntenna's president and CEO, said Thursday's demonstration is permitted under federal law because the device is a prototype not for sale in the U.S.
"We can't sell this technology in the United States, but we can demonstrate it," he said.
Melamed said a Jan. 8 demonstration of the jamming device is scheduled in the District of Columbia. Other states have also requested demonstrations.