Cincinnati entrepreneurs test new technology to combat illegal cellphone use in prisons

'We knocked down every single phone'
Cell phones in jail? Not with this technology
Posted at 11:54 AM, May 17, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-17 19:00:50-04

CINCINNATI -- Now they know it works in a jail.

Cincinnati-based Cell Command Inc. successfully tested its beacon system for shutting down contraband cellphones in prison by deploying the system at the Hamilton County Justice Center.

“We turned the beacons on, and the phones shut themselves down,” said John Fischer, who developed the patented technology and hopes to build a multi-billion dollar company around the idea. “We knocked down every single phone we tried to knock down within a very short time period, anywhere from one to five seconds upon boot up.”

Cell Command CEO John Fischer guides Hamilton County inmates through a test of his technology to block cellphone use in prisons

Ten inmates participated in the May 16 test. They were handed cellphones and invited to call friends or family members. WCPO shot video of the activity as Fischer placed battery-powered devices smaller than a pack of cigarettes on the cell-block walls. Once installed, the beacons were activated. Within seconds, the phones blared warnings that illegal cellphone use would be terminated.

“We now have multiple beacons of multiple size,” Fischer said. “We even have them now where they have a five-year shelf life (and) don’t require any outside wiring. We can go in and place them in a very inconspicuous area, where it’s not likely to be seen or noticed. So it makes it much easier on the initial installation process.”

Cell Command Chairman Rob Smyjunas

Fischer has been working with Cincinnati real estate developer Rob Smyjunas to build industry support for the new technology. As WCPO reported last year, the duo won a key ruling from the Federal Communications Commission last March that identified beacon systems as a possible solution to illegal cellphone use in prison.

“Inmates’ use of contraband wireless devices is a serious threat to the safety and welfare of correctional facility employees, other inmates, and innocent members of the public,” the agency declared in a press release announcing new rules to “spur the development of technological solutions” to combat the problem.

Meantime, the problem continues. State prison officials in South Carolina blamed contraband cellphones for sparking a seven-hour riot in April that killed seven inmates and injured 17 others at the Lee Correctional Institute in Bishopville.

The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association has resisted the idea of jamming devices, arguing in letter to the FCC in January that a court order is needed to take such an approach.

"A court order process is part of the checks and balances traditionally imposed when government seeks to compel private sector action in the law enforcement context," wrote Patrick Donovan, an attorney for the wireless-industry trade group. Requiring court orders would "provide a meaningful level of assurance that the targeted device is in fact contraband," he added.

CTIA declined to comment on Cell Command's technology, but released a statement saying it continues "to work collaboratively with correctional facilities and third-party vendors to fight against contraband, unauthorized wireless devices. Our goal is to find a solution that addresses this problem while protecting the legal devices users near and inside correctional facilities."

Fischer said his technology would not impact legitimate phone use because Cell Command beacons can be programed to limit the range of its signals.

“Other technologies they’ve tried in the past, such as jamming, will bleed outside the correctional facility,” Fischer said. “We can get ours down to two meters. It will not bleed outside that facility.”

Cell Command also has a “special permission” setting to ensure legitimate cellphone use can continue after its beacons prompt a phone to shut down. Finally, the shut down process would be activated by software that wireless carriers install on the SIM card of every phone.

That means it can’t be altered by hackers and the shut down order can be targeted to contraband phones only.

“We’re the only technology that is device-level deactivation,” he said. “We take down the phone. We do not hinder or harm or create any holes in carrier frequencies.”

Fischer is hoping to get a chance to prove his technology in a series of tests this summer in U.S. prisons. He said the wireless industry is working with the FCC to schedule the tests, which he expects will take about six months.

Wednesday’s test at the Hamilton County Justice Center was a trial run for Cell Command and at least one industry observer was impressed with the results.

“It would really make law enforcement’s job much, much easier,” said Jim Engle, CEO of Combined Public Communications, a Cold Spring, Kentucky-based provider of inmate phone service at more than 150 correctional facilities nationwide. Engle said Hamilton County does a good job preventing contraband phones, but state prisons are notorious for phone smuggling.

“The size of the cellphones now they make it difficult” for jail guards to spot illegal cellphones smuggled into prison, Engle said. “You can buy some that are so small that they’re concealable.”

Engle said support is building for technological solutions to the problem of contraband cellphones, but “there’s a lot of push back from cellphone companies. They’re afraid of, well, are we going to do this in schools or take it to movie theaters. It’s a line that I don’t think they want to cross.”