Blocking Cell Phone Calls from Prisons: Good Idea, Dumb Policy

Honduras has embarked on a very stupid program of forcing its cell phone providers to block calls from within the 23 prisons in Honduras. It's not that the idea is necessarily bad. But the implementation they chose is exceptionally stupid. The Honduran Congress under Porfirio Lobo passed a bill that requires cell phone providers to block any calls from prisons. This is not something that is done easily in a standard cell phone base station and requires special programming (and probably required the purchase of that capability from the base station provider). 

The idiocy comes from the fact that the law specifies that for each prison location, no cell phone be able to complete a call, text message, or Internet connection within a one kilometer circle around the prison. The Honduran Congress definitely shouldn't have specified a technical solution to what recognizably is a problem for their desired management of the prison population. But they did, and they chose the worst possible solution for the Honduran populace that lives near the prisons.

 

It probably bears emphasis that in Honduras, prisons are often located in densely populated areas surrounded by housing. The residents of these cities and towns living within one kilometer of the prisons targeted are suffering because their cell phones don't work, either. That means no emergency service calls for medical help, no fire protection, no calling the police to report a crime in progress. 

 

In some cases the congressionally mandated solution wipes out the telecommunications capabilities of businesses.  And the affected zone is not actually limited to the mandated one kilometer: people living 2-3 km away from the prison in Gracias a Dios cannot use their phones. Why? Because the system works by geolocating each phone and determining its distance from the prison. This is not always an accurate process.

 

Arturo Corrales, the Security Minister held over from the Lobo Sosa administration, strongly supports the law, and today said the common good is above the good of individuals. But who defines the "common good" being served here?

 

There's an awful lot of people who can no longer use their cell phones despite a legitimate right to do so. Cell phone jamming has been proposed as a possible alternative technology, but in trials around the world, it has a mixed record of success.  If there's a cell tower near the prison, it can easily swamp the jamming signal, and managing the tuning of the jammers is time consuming and requires ongoing attention. The Honduran military already has this capability and deployed it in 2009 during the coup if Corrales wants to try it.

 

The technological solution that's most appropriate for what Honduras wants to achieve is called "managed access". In this system, the prison would establish a small cell phone base station to provide a radio umbrella over the prison. That umbrella can be tuned fairly accurately to only affect the prison population.

 

When a cell phone connects to the system, the system determines if it is an authorized cell number.  Authorized cell phones are then connected to the commercial services.  Unauthorized cell phones simply stop working. Such systems are available from multiple vendors and have successfully been used in US prisons.

 

Corrales alludes to efforts to study possible technological solutions that might limit blocking to just the prison, but in the meantime, Honduran citizens with legitimate rights to use a cell phone will continue to suffer because Congress inappropriately specified a technological solution it did not understand. (2/20/14) (image courtesy Internet)

 

Note: This article was originally published by Honduras Culture and Politics.

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