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How a South Jersey prison plans to thwart inmates' illegal cellphones

By Jim Walsh

April 17, 2023

JOINT BASE McGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST – A federal prison here is introducing a new tactic in its fight against smuggled cellphones.

FCI Fort Dix has announced plans for a “contraband interdiction system” intended to identify and disable illegal phones at the lock-up for almost 3,900 low- and minimum-security inmates.

Smuggled phones have been a longtime concern at the prison, where inmates used them to coordinate deliveries of contraband — including more cellphones — via late-night drone flights between October 2018 and June 2019.

In addition, the FBI accused five inmates in 2017 and three more in 2018 with allegedly using illegal phones to access child pornography in the prison.

Cellphone seizures on the rise at FCI Fort Dix

An affidavit filed with a criminal complaint in that case noted 1,522 phones were confiscated at FCI Fort Dix in 2016, up from 652 a year earlier and 217 in 2014.

An inmate cooperating with investigators said phones were hidden "in light fixtures, jacket liners, closets and under lockers,” according to the affidavit.

FCI Fort Dix disclosed its interdiction strategy in a legally required public notice of just two sentences.

“Those in the surrounding community should be aware there is potential for accidental call blocking during deployment,” the notice said.

A representative of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons offered no additional information,

“For safety and security reasons, the Bureau of Prisons does not discuss specific internal security practices at any institution,” said agency spokesman Donald Murphy.

FCC allows contraband interdiction systems

The Federal Communications Commission announced rules for prison interdiction systems that took effect in May 2022.

“For decades, wireless devices, including cell phones, have been smuggled into correctional facilities nationwide,” it said in announcing a framework for the rules in July 2021.

The FCC said inmates used the devices for criminal activities “posing serious threats to officials and incarcerated people within the facility and innocent members of the public.”

It said interdiction systems have “one or more stations” designed “exclusively to prevent transmissions to or from contraband wireless devices within (a prison) and/or to obtain identifying information from such … devices.”

Cellphone service providers are required to disable the phones “at both the subscription and device level” within two business days of receiving a report from a prison, the FCC noted.

The providers must also take “all reasonable and practical steps to prevent (a contraband phone) from accessing other wireless provider networks,” it added.