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California prisons could get tougher on cellphones

The handsets are already banned, but a proposed law would make it a crime for prisoners to possess them.

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"These people have been segregated from the public for a reason, and to allow them to have unfettered access to the Internet or cellphones certainly undermines security as well as the punishment they've been sentenced to," says state Sen. John Benoit (R), who introduced the bill after touring a prison in his Riverside County, Calif., district.

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After walking through the facility, he asked a group of gang suppression officers what he could do to help them better perform their jobs. "They almost answered in unison: outlaw cellphones. And I was taken aback. You mean they aren't already outlawed?" he recounted.

Critics say California's current prison policy on cellphones amounts to a simple slap on the wrist for inmates. In a report issued this week, the California Office of the Inspector General said that efforts by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to find and confiscate cellphones "have mostly proven ineffective."

The current policy allows prison administrators to reduce a prisoner's good-behavior credit if he or she is found with a cellphone, ban visitors caught trying to smuggle in phones, and fire employees caught peddling mobile phones. By contrast, the proposed law is a powerful deterrent, Senator Benoit says, because it carries a possible criminal charge and fines of up to $5,000.

Still, both Benoit and Richard Subia, associate director for the division of adult institutions in the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, wanted a bill with more teeth. They would like to see offenders face felony charges.

Texas, Nevada, and Florida have passed laws making cellphone possession by inmates a felony. But in California, where prisoner overcrowding has become a heated political issue, any legislation potentially adding more time to prison sentences was not a political reality. So they agreed to move the bill forward with a lesser penalty.

That doesn't amount to much deterrence for inmates looking at life sentences. But, Mr. Subia says, it will make prison staff or visiting family members think twice before trying to sneak in cellphones. Since it's currently not illegal, he says, some people don't consider it a big deal to smuggle in handsets. The Office of the Inspector General calls it "a low risk, high profit endeavor."

For low-paid prison employees, the cellphone black market can be alluring. At lease one California correctional officer made $150,000 by selling about 150 phones. Cellphones go for $400 to $1,000 depending on the quality of the phone, according to prison officials. Inmates often rent phones for $50 to $100.

Texas, Nevada, Florida, and South Carolina now require all employees and visitors to be screened before entering prisons. California officials have started randomly searching prison staff to catch cellphones before they enter the prison population, Subia says. Because of those efforts, about a dozen employees in the past six months have been nabbed and fired, he says.

In South Carolina, prison officials recently tested jamming cellphone signals altogether, which is in violation of federal communications law.

But, says Subia, jamming cell signals is the only way to put an end to cellphone abuse in America's prisons. And a growing number of prison officials and lawmakers agree. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas recently introduced the Safe Prisons Communications Act to give prisons the right to interrupt cell signals. But the potential problem with that, according to some in the wireless industry, is that jamming devices block potential emergency calls from prison staff and could possibly spill outside prisons, blocking other signals.

The California legislation has yet to be taken up by the Assembly. If the bill moves though the Assembly without any opposition, it could be signed by the governor as early as this summer and put into effect Jan. 1. But it's still just a first step to dealing with the problem, Benoit says. He doesn't doubt that prisoners will continue to find ways of getting cellphones past prison censors. "There's no limit to their innovation," he says.