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Contributed photo / These cellphones were seized earlier this year at Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction. State officials are seeking a change to federal law that would allow "shielded micro-jamming" in state prisons to block signals from contraband cellphones.

Contraband cellphones are instrumental in illicit activities in prisons, ranging from unapproved communications with people on the outside to the orchestration of violent drug rings such as the "reign of violence and drugs" operation inside the Tennessee prison system that federal agents busted last month.

Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Tony Parker said an 87-year-old federal law is blocking the way for states to start jamming contraband cellphones being used inside prisons, and it's time for a change. The state has even received funding for piloting the idea.

"We believe there is only one viable solution in fighting the war on contraband cellphones in our facilities and that is through the deployment of shielded micro-jamming technology," Parker said in a statement after arrests last week that led to 37 people being federally charged. "Shielded micro-jamming uses lower power technology to focus energy effectively on the target area while limiting signal disruption outside of the target area. We are working with federal lawmakers and the [U.S.] Department of Justice to find ways to promote shielded micro-jamming."

Although TDOC was awarded a grant through the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance to conduct a pilot program using shielded micro-jamming, Parker said the Communications Act of 1934 blocks use of the technology.

"In the fight against contraband cellphones, we run into a brick wall time and time again," he said. "Our hands are tied with a near-century-old law that could not have foreseen the problem of illegal cellphones inside prisons in 2021."

Parker said corrections leaders across the country agree it's time to adopt shielded micro-jamming technology "that will resolve this significant security threat that makes possible the type of illegal activity that leads to criminal conspiracies between people inside our correctional environment and those on the outside."

(READ MORE: Alabama jailer charged with sneaking cellphones to prisoners)

But ACLU National Prison Project Director David Fathi said in an interview with Pew Charitable Trusts in 2016 that he agreed cellphones in prisons are a legitimate security concern "[b]ut prisons themselves help create the demand for contraband by making it very difficult and expensive for prisoners to call their loved ones through legitimate channels," he said.

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Contributed photo / This cellphone was among those seized earlier this year at Northeast Correctional Complex in Mountain City, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction. State officials are seeking a change to federal law that would allow "shielded micro-jamming" in state prisons to block signals from contraband cellphones.

Correction spokesperson Dorinda Carter said cellphones possessed by Tennessee inmates are rarely used for anything other than illegal activity, and that "all facilities have telephones available for communication with family and friends."

The jamming technology was tested at a prison in South Carolina in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. It was the first collaboration of its kind in a state-run facility after two previous tests at federal correctional facilities in Maryland.

Only federal agencies now can get authorization to jam the public airwaves, according to the Department of Justice. State and local prisons cannot. The South Carolina test in April 2019 was a unique collaboration between the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the South Carolina Department of Corrections, officials said.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration authorized the test that produced results in September 2019 that federal officials called "promising" after observing micro-jamming technology installed and operated within half of an inmate housing unit at the South Carolina prison.

Testers observed that cellphone signals inside the housing unit were blocked while legitimate calls could be made 1 foot outside of the housing unit perimeter, according to a federal statement on the report. The two earlier tests at a Maryland federal prison showed the technology rendered cellular signals inoperable inside a single prison cell.

(READ MORE: State fires 8 workers at Morgan County prison after inmate 'escapes,' returns with contraband)

Legislation to make changes was introduced in 2019 by U.S. House representatives David Kustoff, a Tennessee Republican representing the 8th House District, and William Timmons, R-South Carolina, along with a Senate version supported by Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, and Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, legislative records show.

"[I]t is long past due that Congress take action and protect the public from criminals who continue their illegal activities from behind bars," Rep. Kustoff said in a March 2019 news release. "Inmates use these cellphones to engage in drug operations, sex trafficking, and organizing escapes that cause devastating consequences for public safety and empower these criminals to continue a life of crime."

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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