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Bill to bar prison cellphones passes key vote in California Senate

After adding the threat of jail time for prison workers caught supplying cellphones to inmates, the Public Safety Committee approves the bill.

March 23, 2011|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • In this 2009 file photo, Correctional Officer Jose Sandoval inspects one of the more than 2,000 cellphones confiscated from inmates at California State Prison, Solano, in Vacaville. The use of illicit cellphones by inmates has exploded in recent years, enabling them to arrange crimes in the outer world from behind prison walls.
In this 2009 file photo, Correctional Officer Jose Sandoval inspects one… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

Reporting from Sacramento -- A proposed law against taking cellphones into California prisons passed a key vote Tuesday, but the measure would exempt prison employees — considered a main source of phones used to arrange crimes from behind bars — from screening by metal detectors as they go to work.

Requiring prison guards to stand in line for airport-like security checks would cost the state millions, according to legislative analysts. That is because members of the politically powerful corrections officers union are paid for "walk time" — the minutes it takes to get from their cars, or the front gate, to their posts inside the prisons.

Amid the state's budget crisis, any proposal that would cost money is a "dead end," said Bill Mabie, spokesman for state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), sponsor of the cellphone bill.

The Senate Public Safety Committee approved Padilla's measure, which would make smuggling a cellphone to an inmate a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. The measure now heads to the Appropriations Committee.

As written, the bill, SB 26, did not apply the threat of jail time to prison employees, but the Public Safety Committee added that provision Tuesday.

"These cellphones are being brought in primarily, it appears, by people employed by our corrections system," said committee Chairwoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley). "To me this is not only a very egregious offense, but a breach of public trust."

Hancock made the comments after listening to Padilla and Terri McDonald, chief deputy secretary of adult operations for California prisons, list crimes directed by inmates with smuggled cellphones, including murders, kidnappings, drug deals and witness intimidation.

The committee stripped Padilla's bill of a provision that would have added two to five years to the sentence of any inmate caught planning a crime with a smuggled cellphone. Because of the state's chronic prison overcrowding, the Public Safety Committee has a moratorium against measures that would increase the prison population.

More than 10,000 cellphones turned up behind California prison walls last year, up from 261 in 2006. The problem is so widespread that prison officials are unable to keep the devices out of the hands of even the most notorious and violent inmates. Charles Manson has been caught twice with a smuggled cellphone.

The incentive for smugglers is strong: Phones fetch as much as $1,000 from inmates. In 2008, internal investigators searched an employee's car and found 50 cellphones labeled with the names of the inmates they were destined for, according to a report by Senate staff.

In 2009, a corrections officer garnered $150,000 in a single year by smuggling phones to prisoners. 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 for inmates to possess them.

Forty-three other states have outlawed the devices, Padilla said. And last year, President Obama signed a bill making possession of cellphones illegal in federal prisons.

Federal prison guards are required to go through metal detectors on the way in to work, according to the Senate report. "Once staff grew accustomed to the new entry screening process, the added time it took them to report to their workstations was minimized," the report says.

But the procedure comes with other costs, for a metal detector and four employees to operate it during each shift change.

Padilla, who in the past has proposed screening guards, urged Gov. Jerry Brown to include it in the negotiation of a new prison guards' work contract earlier this year. A contract agreement was struck last week, but the walk-time provision "didn't come up," said Lynelle Jolley, spokeswoman for the state Department of Personnel Administration. Details of the deal have not been released.

Brown has not taken an official position on the bill.

jack.dolan@latimes.com

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