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Phone smuggling case costs 20 California prison workers their jobs

Most are accused of taking the cellphones in for cash, while others are suspected of doing it for love, a watchdog agency report says.

October 14, 2012|By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times
  • Prisons Secretary Matthew Cate has been pushing a technological solution to the cellphone problem.
Prisons Secretary Matthew Cate has been pushing a technological solution…

Twenty California prison employees suspected of smuggling cellphones to inmates have resigned or were fired in recent months, according to a report from the state's prison watchdog agency.

Most of those employees were accused of taking the phones in for cash, while others were suspected of doing it for love or something like it, according to the report.

One inmate caught with a phone had text messages and nude photos sent by a female guard, the report says. Another inmate was caught with love letters and a childhood photo from a guard accused of providing him the phone.

And a female prison office worker was accused of smuggling a phone to an inmate who is suspected of fathering her child. When prosecutors reviewing the case for possible criminal charges requested a DNA sample from the clerk she resigned, the report states.

The proliferation of cellphones in prisons is a significant public safety concern, officials say. Inmates have run street gangs from behind bars, intimidated witnesses and orchestrated assaults on guards, they said.

The report released this month by the prison's Office of the Inspector General identified 419 cases of serious rules violations monitored by the watchdog agency in the first six months of this year. Among the cases were those of 54 employees accused of smuggling phones. In addition to the 20 who lost their jobs, 13 had the allegations against them dropped and the rest remain under investigation, the report shows.

The watchdog identified taboo romances as a common motive.

Though employees are trained to avoid amorous entanglements with inmates, there are "always some bad apples," prison spokeswoman Dana Simas said.

Money is another common motive. Cellphones have been known to fetch up to $1,000 behind bars. Until last year, smuggling a mobile device to an inmate wasn't a crime in California. A law pushed by prison administrators, and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, makes it a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.

The number of phones confiscated by prison guards has dropped in recent months. Officials say they're on a pace to recover about 12,000 by the end of the year, compared with 15,000 last year.

As phones began to flood the prisons in the late 2000s, tensions emerged between lawmakers trying to fix the problem and the politically powerful California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. Union officials warned that a plan to search guards on their way into work would insult their members and cost taxpayers millions of dollars, since officers are paid for the time it takes them to walk from the front gate to their posts.

Simas said she "would caution against portraying [employees] as the only way cellphones are coming in" to prisons. The main source, she said, is inmates let out for work duty who pick up stashes of the devices dropped by co-conspirators outside the fence. Asked if the prisoners are searched upon their return, Simas said, "Yes, but they don't do a strip search every time inmates come back."

Simas said she did not have statistics comparing the number of phones brought in by inmates versus those taken in by staff.

Two years ago, legislative analysts studying the issue concluded that staff were the "primary" source, since everyone else is searched before they enter the prisons.

Prisons Secretary Matthew Cate has been pushing a technological solution to the problem that would render the debate over who is responsible moot. Earlier this year, he persuaded the company that supplies pay phones in prisons to install "managed" cellphone towers at all of California's correctional institutions. The towers will accept communication only from approved phones, making smuggled phones useless.

The phone company will recover its costs by the increased demand for its pay phones, Cate said. The first tower is expected to be installed by the end of the month and the entire system completed by 2015, Simas said.

The inspector general's report also criticized Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation attorneys for shoddy work that makes it difficult to fire prison employees, even those who flagrantly break the rules. The report accused some prison lawyers of missing deadlines, filing incomplete legal documents and lacking familiarity with the facts of the employee discipline cases they're assigned to handle.

An unnamed prison lawyer fell asleep "on numerous occasions" during interviews, prompting investigators in one case to kick him to wake him up, the watchdog wrote.

The report also described the attorney's boss, an unnamed assistant chief counsel in the corrections department's southern region, as "indolent" and accused the supervisor of fostering "an atmosphere of disregard" for reforms meant to punish staff for assaults on inmates.

As a result of the bad legal work, guards accused of serious rules violations have avoided punishment altogether, the report says. Others, including three fired for being dishonest about the use of force on inmates, won appeals filed with the State Personnel Board and got their jobs back "at a tremendous cost to the department in back-pay," the report says.

Under state law, fired employees who win their jobs back are entitled to their full salary for the time they missed work.

Simas, the prison spokeswoman, said that her department "disagreed" with some of the criticisms leveled at the attorneys, but did not say what those disagreements were.

jack.dolan@latimes.com

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