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State lawmakers up the stakes in battle over prison cell phones


State lawmakers are making another push to get rid of contraband cell phones in prisons at a time when corrections officials describe the situation as “untenable” and a major threat to public safety.

The Senate Public Safety Committee today will discuss a bill – known as SB 26 – that would impose criminal penalties on inmates who use cell phones, and others, including staff and guards who smuggle the devices into prisons.

Despite a ban, some 10,000 smuggled cell phones were confiscated in California prisons last year – either directly from inmates or abandoned. In addition, 271 cell phones were seized from prison staff as part of a program of random, monthly searches known as “Operation Disconnect,” according to data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

In some cases gang leaders behind bars have used the devices to direct drug deals and even order murders outside prison, according to federal indictments.

A previous version of the Senate bill was vetoed last year by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who dismissed it as ineffective.

"While signing this measure might be better than nothing, I cannot sign a measure that does so little," he said in his veto message. "Signing (it) would mean that smuggling a can of beer into a prison carries with it a greater punishment than delivering a cell phone to the leader of a criminal street gang.”

Schwarzenegger called for cell phone possession by inmates to be treated as a felony.

Under the current bill, inmates would lose nonrestorable time credits, which could lengthen their prison terms by weeks or months. An inmate caught using a cell phone to facilitate a crime would face a sentence enhancement ranging from two to five years.

Visitors who smuggle cell phones to inmates would face penalties of up to $5,000 and six months in jail while prison employees would be punished only with fines.

Despite previous vetoes, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-San Fernando Valley, predicted the current bill would get friendlier treatment in the new governor’s office.

“I think Gov. Brown, having served as attorney general of the state of California, being very familiar with prison gangs and prison gang activity, can appreciate the threat that cell phones in the hands of inmates present to public safety,” he said.

At the same time, corrections officials say they’ve been successful in testing devices that detect and block unauthorized cell phone transmissions in prisons. 

In a recent pilot program at an undisclosed prison, officials intercepted 4,000 transmissions from 480 unauthorized cell phones in a 24-hour period.


Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report


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B. Cayenne Bird's picture
Hi Michael: Thanks for writing this piece. The State is wasting money on this cellphone problem that they have created by delaying and blocking important mail to the prisoners. There is no love between inmates and guards, so just what are the primary reasons that an impoverished prisoner would pay about $600 for a black market cellphone? Here it is broken down for you to see. Prisoners are people. They have court cases that are matters of life and death in progress. They have wives, children, ailing elderly parents and other family members who are struggling, often ill, and sad over their imprisonment. It takes up to six weeks to get a letter and that is too long to meet deadlines for the cases in progress. The prisoners are not well-educated people and at least 40,000 of them are mentally ill. The prisons are so badly managed that the inmates cannot properly work with their attorneys. They cannot be part of their children's daily lives. This denial of communications is all by design. CDCR does not want the prisoners to win their freedom with successful legal cases or to maintain family ties. You have no idea how many sadistic people work in CDCR and go all out to block court access of our eleven inmate lawyers. They do this to ALL prisoners. Ad Seg, the SHU, and constant lockdowns drive men mad after about two weeks. CDCR uses this torture housing as regular permanent, housing because they just do not view the inmates as human beings. The inmates are simply livestock to them, and the guards and vendors will gladly sell them an outrageously priced black market cell phone and they do. The cell phones do not come in via the families. Desperate young wives and mothers will find the money for the guards so that they can have the fathers of their children in their lives. CDCR could eliminate cell phone sales by delivering the mail in a timely manner and ending the ridiculous and harmful SHU, ad seg, and continuous lockdowns. The prisoners are going to fight back hard over intentionally blocked court cases and family ties. The State is creating the problem by housing the inmates too far away from their families and out of state. The State is creating the problem by blocking ingoing and outcoming mail. The State even turns away priority mail if it weighs more than 13 oz. This is in violation of federal postal regulations and it means that the prisoners are not getting their legal mail. The rights of those who mail to prisoners are being violated with the mismanagement of the mail. No one can call a prisoner. They are not allowed to learn and use computers so that they can communicate with their loved ones. Such is not the case in Canada where close family ties reduce recidivism. The guards and state employees in charge know that the isolation drives the men over the edge. That's the whole point of isolation, blocked mailed, denial of telephone use, torture ad seg and SHU housing. That's why inmates will buy a cellphone from loathesome prison guards. Their freedom and family ties depend on that communication. Fix the core reasons why they must resort to electronic communication and the problem will go away by itself without wasting our tax dollars on "solutions." Matthew Cate is a moron. He holds no one accountable for blocked mail and abusive torture housing. The lawmakers hold no one accountable either, they like the checks from the prison guard's union CCPOA. I seriously doubt that many abuses are taking place because prisoners have cell phones. Abuse to them is what is causing the cell phones to be a lifeline.
impoundguy's picture
Maybe they should have thought about their wives, mothers and fathers and what they would do to their children "before" committing the crime that sent them to prison in the first place...instead of trying to find reasoning why they need to have cell phones to keep in touch with those they just threw out like yesterdays trash.....bleeding hearts like yours for CRIMINALS make me want to puke...maybe we should get them all 50 inch flat screens with surround sound so they can watch Dancing with the Stars that way they won't loose site of what's hot on TV. Then they can be more adjusted when and "if" they get out.......pull the needle out of your arm and get real!! We are not talking Boy Scout here.....they are not in prison for their "good deeds".
CA Common Sense's picture
No need to be so harsh, impoundguy, but it's true that California spends $47,000 per prisoner each year (that's 50% higher than the national average) for over 170,000 prisoners. State taxpayers spend around $133 every day per prisoner. The four-star Burlingame Hyatt Regency regularly beats that price. Meanwhile, Texas spends only $42.50 per prisoner per day. The best solution to our rampant overspending is to contract with private prisons. Visit California Common Sense's website to learn more.
impoundguy's picture
We spend WAY to much money on these POS...if it were up to me I would give them all cardboard boxes to live in and ship them off the Sheriff Joe in Arizona who seems to be the "only guy" who has his "game on" when it comes to inmates. Like he says "hey, if they don't like the way I run my prison..then don't come back".
impoundguy's picture
Not sure Charles Manson is going to be to worried about additional penalties for having a cell phone. However those who smuggle them in...guards "especially" should have to book thrown at them.....you can't tell me that with all the technology now days they can't find a way to block cell phone transmission within the prison walls....come on guys this isn't rocket science. My boss has one that kills cell phones from his car to the next....and he he bought it on line.

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