As fast as authorities are finding contraband cell phones in California prison cells, they're being replaced by newly smuggled phones.
Last year, prison officials seized 10,760 cell phones. The upward trend continued in January with another 1,196, according to Paul Verke of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The concern is that inmates can use the phones to set up other crimes, including murders, and possibly prison escapes. Two phones have been found in the possession of Charles Manson, the infamous murder cult leader whose notorious crimes involved directing others to do his killing.
"When Charles Manson has a cell phone in a California state prison, we know we have a problem," said State Senator Alex Padilla (D-Van Nuys).
What makes this all the more disturbing is the revelation that in some cases, the smugglers have been identified as prison employees. After hearings by the state senate's public safety committee, analysts concluded: "All indications are that the primary source of cell phones being smuggled into prisons is prison staff."
Temptation stems from the value inmates places on cell phones--as much as $1,000 apiece, or more. "During one year, a correctional officer received approximately $150,000 for smuggling approximately 150 phones to inmates," according to a 2009 report by California's Inspector General. "The correctional officer was terminated, but there were no legal repercussions for his actions."
Despite the fact that it's forbidden for inmates to possess cell phones, smuggling cell phones to state prison inmates has yet to be made a crime in California, despite repeated efforts by State Sen. Padilla. Ranking members of the Assembly Public Safety Committee oppose designating any more felonies in California until the stare resolves its prisons' overcrowding problem. As it was, the legislature rejected criminalizing prison cell phone smuggling as a felony, though it did go for classifying it as a misdemeanor, a lesser crim. But then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed that as not strong enough.
With Schwarzenegger succeeded by Jerry Brown, Sen. Padilla has reintroduced the misdemeanor language as part of a two-bill effort (SB25 and SB26). "I believe criminalizing both the possession of cell phones for inmates and the smuggling of cell phones in for those who wish to try that would be a significant deterrent, Padilla told NBCLA by phone from Washington. Padilla said the base fine of $5,000 would be raised considerably by court fees and assessments. He expressed optimism it would finally become law.
Abandoned for now is an earlier proposal for prison employees to go through metal detectors, as do prison visitors. The union for the largest portion of prison employees, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, has pointed out that, under its contract, prison employees are entitled to compensation for time spent going through security. It's projected that would annually cost California millions of dollars it does not have.
But there may be another way -- a technological solution that promises a magic silver bullet to disable any cell phones from being smuggled into prison, in effect making it unnecessary to stop the smuggling. It's called "managed access," a way of controlling a cellular network so that in a specific area, such as a prison, only calls from approved phones are allowed to go through. Managed access is more precise than simply jamming cell signals, which the Federal Communications Commission is reluctant to approve.
The first stateside prison test of managed access came last September at Mississippi's Parchman Prison. Officials reported it blocked 216,000 calls the first month alone.
The Parchman inmates presumably still have their cell phones. But now they're useless.
California is planning its own test of managed access in the next two months at two prisons yet to be publicly identified. It's expected that if the test goes as well as it did in MIssissippi, California will seek to expand it to other prisons.
Managed access will take money. But the vendors of prison wired phone systems have incentive to help cover at least part of the cost. Their revenue has been dropping as more inmates instead use contraband cell phones to make their calls.