How in the world did Charles Manson get hold of a cellphone? Apparently the same way thousands of other inmates have. Cellphones, it turns out, are ubiquitous in California's correctional facilities. Guards have confiscated 8,575 of them this year, according to the California Department of Corrections, up from 1,400 in 2007. Manson is perhaps the best-known inmate to flout the rules, but the easy access to the outside world, unmonitored by officials, is a serious problem that extends well beyond one infamous criminal. Hard-core gang leaders have been found directing drug deals, intimidating witnesses and planning escapes from their jail cells. Stiffer penalties are clearly in order for what is a genuine threat to public safety, not an infraction.
For one brief moment last summer, Democrats and Republicans united and made smuggling phones to inmates a misdemeanor punishable by fines of $5,000 to $15,000. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, however, vetoed the bill on the grounds that it did not go far enough. The practice should be a felony, he insisted, not a violation of less import than sneaking a prisoner a beer.
Now the gridlock that so infuriates voters has returned. Democrats are resisting measures that would increase the prison population — such as creating new categories of felonies — on the grounds that federal judges have ordered the state to reduce the population by more than 40,000 inmates. The number of prisoners per facility can't be reduced, however, because Republicans balk at building more prisons. So it's a stalemate on the cellphone issue for the moment.