12:13pm

Tue February 8, 2011
Law

Calif. Law Calls For Stricter Prison Cell Phone Rules

By all accounts, California prison inmates are keeping up with technology. Using smart phones, they are texting, surfing the Web and even posting videos to YouTube.

One inmate even shot and narrated a video on his cell phone camera while guards tried to put down a riot; Sacramento TV station KCRA aired the footage last year.

"I gotta go right now," the prisoner-narrator says on the video before he abruptly signs off.

Thousands of these phones have been found, hidden under bunks or even in inmates' pockets. The prisons say it's dangerous because convicts can use the phones to stay in touch with other criminals. But California has yet to find a way to stop them.

'A Lucrative Football'

"It's really frightening that they would be able to post video from a phone," says Joe Baumann, a correctional officer at the the California Rehabilitation Center, a state prison in Norco. He says 10 to 15 phones are found each week. They're smuggled in in all sorts of ingenious ways.

"We had a case recently where we had a gentlemen pull up to the fence with a football," he says. With a strong arm, the man easily tossed the football over the electrified fence. There were 27 cell phones and chargers stuffed inside the pigskin. Each phone is worth about $1,000 behind bars.

"That's a pretty lucrative football," Baumann says.

But it's not just outsiders smuggling the thousands of phones into state prisons every year. State analysts say the primary source of unauthorized phones is the prison staff.

Last year, one guard claimed he made $150,000 smuggling phones. He was fired but never charged with anything.

Richard Subia, of California's Department of Corrections, says smuggling cell phones to convicts isn't a crime.

"It's very frustrating to me that we have people who work for our organization that are willing to risk the lives of their fellow employees," he says. "It creates another risk for the employees and inmates in our facilities, as well as the public at large."

The most notorious inmate caught with a cell phone is Charles Manson. The legendary cult leader has gotten caught using a phone twice in the past two years; the most recent instance was reported last week. Prison officials say Manson called and texted numbers in Florida, New Jersey and British Columbia.

An Uphill Battle

State Sen. Alex Padilla is making his third attempt to criminalize contraband cell phones. He wants smugglers to be fined $5,000 and inmates to get extra prison time.

"Clearly the problem is growing," he says. "It's growing exponentially and bottom line is, every cell phone at the hands of a dangerous inmate is a crime waiting to happen."

Padilla also wants prison guards and staff to go through metal detectors, something they don't do now. But that provision was rejected because of the cost. Guards would have to be paid for the extra time it takes to remove steel-toed shoes and equipment belts, possibly costing millions of dollars a year.

But Padilla faces an uphill battle getting any stiffer penalties, since the state's prisons are jammed and some lawmakers say California can't afford to lock up more people.

"Unfortunately, a lot of my colleagues just have a litmus test, if you will, that any new crimes or any extended sentences they are just going to oppose because of the state's budget situation. I couldn't disagree more," he says.

It may be possible to block unauthorized calls from prisons. But testing of that new technology won't start in California for months. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.