Cell Phones in Prison


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.

By Jack Dolan

Los Angeles Times

March 23, 2011


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.



Prisons seek ally in crackdown on cellphones

Bidders on the upcoming contract for inmates' pay phone service will be asked to include equipment to block cellphone calls. Civil libertarians say cellphones help inmates' positive behavior.

By Jack Dolan

Los Angeles Times

April 11, 2011



Frustrated by the state's inability to prevent thousands of illicit cellphone calls made by inmates from its prisons, California's corrections chief is seeking help from an industry that has a big financial interest in his cause.

Prisons Secretary Matthew Cate said he will offer a deal to companies that bid for the next contract to provide phone service for state inmates: Install costly equipment that will block cellphone calls and see profits surge as prisoners use authorized services to connect with the outside world.

"If cellphones are inoperable, the company will make more money," Cate said in a recent interview.

Prisoners are supposed to use pay phones mounted on the walls of their housing units to call people outside. They are charged collect call rates, and the conversations are recorded and monitored by prison staff. But the proliferation of smuggled cellphones in recent years has reduced use of the authorized phones and the ability to monitor them, and officials say they cannot afford the technology to block cellular signals.

The contract for inmate phone service is up for renewal. Cate wants the winning bidder to pay the estimated $16.5 million to $33 million that it would cost to install "managed access" systems in all 33 state prisons.

In one day earlier this year, a test of the system intercepted more than 4,000 attempts to place calls, send text messages and access the Internet from smuggled cellphones at a single prison, said California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Paul Verke. He would not reveal which prison, citing security concerns.

Use of authorized phones went up by 64% in the days after the test, Verke said.

Dorothy Cukier, an attorney for Global Tel Link, the Alabama company that supplies pay phones and collect call service to California's prisons, said that "contraband cellphones certainly have had an impact" on the number of calls placed from her company's phones. The firm "welcomes the opportunity to discuss" Cate's proposal, she said.

Prisoners' rights advocates and civil libertarians say Cate's plan would lead to financial exploitation of inmates and their families, many of whom struggle to pay for daily necessities. A typical 15-minute call from an inmate costs about $2.

"When the prison system gives the phone company a monopoly, they jack up the price," said Margaret Winter, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union's national prison project. "What we want to do is encourage more contact. That's a prime predictor of [inmates'] success in the future."

Bobby Taylor, who was recently released from Avenal State Prison in Central California, where he served part of a 19-month sentence for drunk driving, said he had a Samsung phone for most of his time there. He stayed out of trouble checking Facebook, following his favorite fishing websites and staying in touch with his 13-year-old daughter, he said.

"The prison system is mad because nobody uses the phones on the wall anymore," Taylor said.

The state's take from the pay phone concession was $26 million in 2008, when legislation was passed to bring down the cost of inmates' calls. The government's share has been reduced by $6.5 million per year since, prison officials said, and will be reduced further, to $800,000, this year.

Prison officials have been warning legislators that the explosion of smuggled cellphones guards confiscated 261 devices in 2006 and more than 10,000 in 2010 poses a public safety threat. Inmates use them to run criminal enterprises from behind bars and arrange assaults on enemies inside. Even the most closely watched inmates have been caught with them. Notorious killer Charles Manson has been caught with two.

Legislators complain that prison employees are the most likely sources of smuggled phones because, unlike visitors who must go through metal detectors, employees are not searched on their way into work.

Taylor said he rarely saw anyone using the wall-mounted pay phones during his sentence at Avenal.

"I think the only time people would use the wall phones," he said, "was to call their people" on the outside "and get another cellphone."