Sacto 9-1-1
April 14, 2009
Prison officials worried about inmate use of cell phones

From Andy Furillo:

California prison officials say they are finding a skyrocketing number of inmates who have cell phones, including some who use them to plan escapes and plot violent crimes and drug deals, and a state legislator has introduced a bill to make their possession a crime.

State Sen. John Benoit told reporters at a press conference Tuesday he was "stunned" to learn it wasn't already illegal for inmates to have the devices, or for anybody to smuggle them inside. Benoit added that he was "amazed" to find out investigators confiscated 1,400 of the devices in 2007 and "flabbergasted" when they said that number had doubled to 2,800 in 2008.

Corrections Secretary Matthew Cate said officials turned up another 1,400 illegal cell phones in the prisons in the first three months of this year, which projects to another doubling in 2009 to 5,600.

Benoit's Senate Bill 434 would make inmate possession and civilian smuggling of cell phones into prison a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in custody. For inmates, it would mean a lessening of good-time credits off their terms.

"Cell phones in the hands of inmates is a dangerous threat to public safety, especially in the hands of gang members," Cate said. "We know they can orchestrate criminal activity, plan escapes, menace victims in the general public, or worse."

The prison agency's associate director of adult institutions, Rich Subia, said corrections investigators know of inmates calling from their cell phones "to put together escapes from our minimum facilities and some of our camp areas." He said they also know "that prison gangs use every avenue available to them in order to communicate outside the prisons," including cell phones.

Officials said that both sworn and civilian correctional employees are suspected of smuggling in more than half of the cell phones that make their way into prison. Cate said that with some inmates willing to pay up to $1,000 per phone, and with one employee admitting to making $100,000 in one year smuggling the devices inside prisons, "there is quite an incentive" for outsiders to bring them inside.

Benoit's bill first sought felony penalties for violators. He said agreed to knock it down to a misdemeanor to get the support of Senate public safety committee chair Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. Leno is now listed as a co-author of the bill.

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