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Thousands of cellphones confiscated in California prisons

Crimes committed with them include the planning of escapes, restraining order violations, use of stolen credit cards for purchases and the coordination of smuggling contraband, report shows.

October 02, 2009|Patrick McGreevy

SACRAMENTO — State prison officials have confiscated 4,130 contraband cellphones this year, more than all those seized in the previous three years combined, according to an internal report released Thursday.

The findings sparked concern among legislators that the proliferation of cellphones in state lockups is a growing security problem.

More than 100 illegal phones were discovered at the California Institution for Men in Chino, including 10 in August, according to the report from Matthew Cate, head of the state prisons system. But he said there is no evidence that inmates used the devices during a riot that occurred there Aug. 8.

"Investigations conducted within California prisons have supported allegations [that] cellphones have been used by incarcerated felons to participate in criminal activity," wrote Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

Crimes committed by inmates using cellphones have included the planning of escapes, restraining order violations, use of stolen credit cards to purchase inmate quarterly packages and the coordination of smuggling contraband into prisons, Cate said.

Two years ago, state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) proposed legislation that would have made it a crime for inmates to possess cellphones in prison. He also proposed subjecting all prison visitors and employees to more rigorous screening, including the use of metal detectors. His ideas were shelved because of the state's budget problems.

"We knew this was a problem two years ago, and it seems to be growing exponentially worse," Padilla said.

In his report, Cate acknowledged that a test program that planned to use "airport-style screening" at prison entrances had been planned. But he said that "due to the current budget crisis, this pilot program has been placed on hold."

Other prison officials said one reason for the increase in confiscations is Operation Disconnect, in which guards have stepped up searches for cellphones, in some cases with the assistance of a phone-sniffing dog, Caesar.

"Our detection methods have definitely been increased and various, which has helped," said Paul Verke, a spokesman for the prison agency. "But it also appears there is a higher incidence of this sort of activity."

Visitors and prison staff have been caught bringing cellphones into prisons, but existing criminal laws are not clear enough to prosecute them, officials said.

Cate said he supports pending state legislation, SB 434 by Sen. John Benoit (R-Palm Desert), which would make it a misdemeanor, with a penalty of up to $5,000, to possess or intend to deliver a cellphone in a state prison.

He also said he backs a federal bill that would allow governors to petition the Federal Communications Commission for wireless signal jamming within a prison.



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