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Charles Manson had a cellphone? California prisons fight inmate cellphone proliferation

Contraband cellphones are burgeoning among prisoners, giving them the ability to arrange crimes on the outside. Even Charles Manson was caught with one. But it's not illegal for state prisoners to possess the devices.

December 02, 2010|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — Contraband cellphones are becoming so prevalent in California prisons that guards can't keep them out of the hands of the most notorious and violent inmates: Even Charles Manson, orchestrator of one of the most notorious killing rampages in U.S. history, was caught with an LG flip phone under his prison mattress.

Manson made calls and sent text messages to people in California, New Jersey, Florida and British Columbia before officers discovered the phone, said Terry Thornton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections.

Asked whether Manson had used the device to direct anyone to commit a crime or to leave a threatening message, Thornton said, "I don't know, but it's troubling that he had a cellphone since he's a person who got other people to murder on his behalf."

Although officials say inmates use smuggled cellphones for all manner of criminal activity, including running drug rings from behind bars, intimidating witnesses and planning escapes, it is not a crime to possess one in a California prison.

In August, President Obama signed a bill banning cellphones from federal prisons and making it a crime, punishable by up to a year in jail, to smuggle one in. That law does not apply to state institutions.

The proliferation of cellphones in California prisons has been exponential in recent years, authorities say. Guards found 1,400 in 2007, when the department began to keep records of confiscations. The number jumped to 6,995 in 2009 and stands at 8,675 so far this year.

The phones show up in minimum security work camps as well as in the most heavily guarded administrative segregation units — whose residents include gang leaders confined to their cells around the clock except for brief stints when they're allowed to pace around metal cages in the prison yards.

Prisoners and supplies coming into those units are searched, but inmates sometimes hide devices in their body cavities, officials said.

There have also been state-documented cases of guards bringing phones into prisons. An inspector general's report last year noted that the phones fetch up to $1,000 each and highlighted the case of a corrections officer who made $150,000 in a single year by supplying the devices to inmates. He was fired, the report said. Criminal charges were not an option.

Examples of inmates using phones to run criminal enterprises are not hard to find. In August, Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, now the governor-elect, trumpeted the arrest of 34 Nuestra Familia gang members in Visalia who had been following orders from incarcerated leaders.

Last month, two escapees from Folsom prison were recaptured after they disappeared from a minimum-security work detail. They used a contraband cellphone to arrange for a friend pick to them up, said warden Rick Hill.

Inmates also use the phones to contact each other. "We know they are communicating building to building to thwart our efforts to recover contraband," Hill said.

Prison administrators across the country have been asking for the authority to jam cellphone signals on prison grounds, but the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the nation's airwaves, has refused.

The politically powerful telecommunications industry lobby has argued that jamming is not precise enough, and legitimate customers trying to use their phones near prisons could also be denied service.

The industry is pushing a more expensive solution called "managed access," which would allow only calls from approved phones to transmit through towers near prisons. Calls from numbers not on the approved list would not go through.

Next year California officials will test such a system, similar to one begun in August near a Mississippi prison. Authorities in that state said the program blocked more than 216,000 unauthorized phone calls and text messages in the first month.

The system didn't cost taxpayers anything, said Mississippi prison spokeswoman Suzanne Singletary.

It was paid for by Global Tel Link, a national company that charges inmates to make calls from many state prisons, including those in Mississippi and California. Who will pay for California's pilot program has not been determined.

Prisoner-rights advocates argue that cellphones let prisoners avoid high fees for making collect calls from prison pay phones — the only allowed method of phone communication, with all calls monitored — and help them maintain crucial bonds with family and friends while they serve time.

But family contact can cut two ways, prison officials say. In September, an inmate at Avenal State Prison in Central California had been calling his 75-year-old mother to get her to collect drug debts owed by customers on the street. After guards found the phone, police raided the woman's La Puente home and found more than $24,000 cash, said Doug Snell, a corrections department spokesman.

The woman was arrested and charged with unauthorized communication with an inmate. A trial is pending.

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