The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) is considering implementing software to block unauthorized cell phone usage by inmates.

Cell phone usage in prisons is rampant nationwide, and Alabama is no exception. Cell phones contribute to, and are a large part of, the massive underground economy within prison systems.

Cell phones, typically of the prepaid variety, are smuggled into Alabama prisons, often with the assistance of family, friends, work-release inmates and even corrections staff. Phones can also be brought in by visitors, thrown over fences or dropped over walls with aerial drones.

Several ADOC employees have been arrested and charged with smuggling cell phones and other contraband into Alabama prisons.

According to ADOC Commissioner John Hamm, prison systems are prohibited from using cell phone jammers.  

"The best would be cell phone jammers that the federal government will not allow us to have, but they can," Hamm said.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, cell phone jammers are dangerous because they can interfere with emergency radio communication and 911 calls.

With those restrictions, ADOC is courting different technology called managed access systems. While it won't prevent cell phones from coming into the prisons, it could very well reduce demand.

Unlike jamming, managed access denies service to specific individuals rather than all phones within a particular area.

"Basically, it's not a jammer," Hamm said. "But if we give your cell phone number, put it in the system, you can make a call out, but if your number's not in the system, you can't call out."

Despite the appeal, the technology does have its limitations. Managed access systems cannot stop using Wi-Fi to access the internet, but they will prohibit calling or texting.

Other prison systems implementing similar protocols had to do significant fine-tuning but still showed the technology had a "significant impact" on inmate phone usage.

Hamm said ADOC would receive funding to implement the technology on October 1.

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