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.