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California prison guards union called main obstacle to keeping cellphones away from inmates

Members of the politically powerful union would have to be paid millions extra to be searched on their way to work. Prison employees, about half of whom are guards, are the main source of the smuggled phones.

February 04, 2011|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • Charles Manson, shown in 1970, is serving a life sentence for seven ritualistic murders. Two cellphones have found their way to him in prison.
Charles Manson, shown in 1970, is serving a life sentence for seven ritualistic… (Los Angeles Times )

Reporting from Sacramento — Lawmakers struggling to keep cellphones away from California's most dangerous inmates say a main obstacle is the politically powerful prison guards union, whose members would have to be paid millions of dollars extra to be searched on their way into work.

Prison employees, roughly half of whom are unionized guards, are the main source of smuggled phones that inmates use to run drugs and other crimes, according to legislative analysts who examined the problem last year. Unlike visitors, staff can enter the facilities without passing through metal detectors.

While union officials' stated position is that they do not necessarily oppose searches, they cite a work requirement that corrections officers be paid for "walk time" — the minutes it takes them to get from the front gate to their posts behind prison walls.

Putting metal detectors along the route, with an airport-like regimen involving removal of steel-toed boots and equipment-laden belts, could double the walk time, adding several million dollars to officers' collective pay each year, according to a 2008 Senate analysis.

Since then, cellphones have proliferated exponentially in California's state lockups. This year, state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) is calling on Gov. Jerry Brown to "put the [search] issue on the table" in contract negotiations with the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.

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"Everybody coming into the state Capitol building has to go through a metal detector…. You even get searched when you go to a Lakers game," said Padilla, who for three years has sponsored unsuccessful legislation to crack down on the contraband phones. "Why don't we have that requirement at correctional facilities, of all places?"

Brown, whose campaign received generous financial support from the union and who made one of his few public appearances between the November election and his January inauguration at the union's annual convention in Las Vegas, would not say whether searches are under review.

"Our office does not discuss the details of pending contract negotiations," said Brown spokesman Evan Westrup, who noted that the prison system is testing technology to block cellphone calls in prisons.

More than 10,000 cellphones made their way into California prisons last year — up from 1,400 in 2007, said corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton. Two of those wound up in the hands of Charles Manson, who is serving a life sentence for ordering the ritualistic murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others in 1969.

The phones can fetch as much as $1,000 each behind prison walls, according to a recent state inspector general's report, which detailed how a corrections officer made $150,000 in a single year smuggling phones to inmates. He was fired but was not prosecuted because it is not against the law to take cellphones into prison, although it is a violation of prison rules to possess them behind bars.

Analysts for the Senate Public Safety Committee who studied last year's legislation left no room for doubt about who they believed was responsible for most of the unauthorized phones.

"All indications are that the primary source of cellphones being smuggled into prisons is prison staff," they wrote. "The committee has been presented no evidence of visitors who are properly screened through metal detectors being responsible for the problem."

Guard union spokesman JeVaughn Baker said pointing the finger at corrections officers is all wrong.

"Sure, there are instances where officers have brought them in," Baker said. "But to say that prison staff are the most likely smugglers of cellphones is simply inaccurate."

Asked whether union members would be willing to forgo extra pay for standing in line at metal detectors, Baker said, "The law demands that individuals are compensated for the time that they work."

Padilla had a bill in 2008 that would have required searches of prison staff, but it died after union officials pointed out that extra pay would follow.

This year, Padilla, who also gets financial support from the union, has steered clear of it by omitting staff searches from a bill that would impose a $5,000 fine on anyone caught trying to smuggle a phone to an inmate. The proposal would also lengthen sentences for prisoners caught with phones by up to five years if it can be shown that they used them to commit crimes.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year, saying that the penalties weren't stiff enough.

Such punishment might not deter an inmate like Manson, who in all likelihood will die in prison, but the threat of added time might make other prisoners think twice about keeping a phone, Padilla said.

Prison officials added 30 days to Manson's sentence after guards found an LG flip phone under his mattress in March 2009. They found him with a second phone, equipped with a camera, on Jan. 6, Thornton said. She declined to provide details about where Manson got the phone, saying the case is still under investigation.

jack.dolan@latimes.com

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