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State budget concerns hamper another prison reform bill

by Chris Hinyub, published

A proposed state law aimed at keeping cellphones out of prisoners' hands passed a key hurdle last week. The law would ban the smuggling of cellphones into state prisons, a problem that hasn't been officially qualified by state officials until it was discovered that famed convict Charles Manson had been texting followers from behind bars. However, many argue that the measure will be ineffectual without a provision to screen prison employees who are thought to be the main source of the electronic contraband.


Such a rule would cost millions, legislative analysts say. State Senator Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) who is sponsoring the cellphone bill said through a spokesman that any bill which adds to state expenditures (considering California's current fiscal situation) is a “dead end.”


Padilla is referring to additional “walk time” dollars that unionized corrections officers would be entitled to under federal union laws. Prison employees must be reimbursed for the time it takes them to reach their posts upon arriving at work. The logic goes that prison employees would enlarge the budget deficit if they have to spend extra time at security checkpoints before their shifts.


Voices opposed to screening California guards point to other added costs besides “walk-time” pay. The state would have to not only purchase metal detectors for each prison, but would have to employ four people to operate each one during shift changes.


Padilla's measure is headed to the Appropriations Committee after the Senate Public Safety Committee approved it last Monday. The law would make smuggling a cellphone to an inmate a misdemeanor punishable by a $5,000 fine and a possible jail sentence of up to six months. The Public Safety Committee did make one important last minute change to the measure by stipulating that the threat of jail time should be applied to prison employees as well.


For committee Chairwoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), the amendment was necessary to the efficacy of the proposed law.


     "These cellphones are being brought in primarily, it appears, by people employed by our corrections system," Hancock said at last week's committee hearing, adding, "To me this is not only a very egregious offense, but a breach of public trust."


Officials want to put an end to the myriad of crimes which are organized from inside prison walls with the aid of phones including murders, kidnappings, witness tampering and intimidating, and drug deals. But the new law would do little to deter such behavior, opponents say. On the one hand the bill leaves a giant loophole for corrupt guards – the only plausible source of cellphones in California prisons – to keep on operating criminally while, on the other hand, it fails to punish inmates who would use cellphones in the commission of a crime. The committee had to nix a provision that mandated added prison terms for inmates caught planning crimes with phones because of a moratorium on laws that would add to prison overcrowding in the state.


More than 10,000 cell phones were found in state prisons last year. That number is up from just 261 four years prior. A new state study showed that a prison employee stood to make as much as $1,000 off of just one of these smuggled cellphones. According to the Los Angeles Times:


   “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.”


If AB 26 passes in its current form, most of the incentives to keep cellphones flowing into prisons would remain in place.


Last year, President Obama signed a bill outlawing the possession of cellphones in federal prisons. Guards at these facilities are required to pass through metal detectors on their way to work. Currently, forty three other states have passed similar laws.


It seems that a solution to the state's prison cellphone problem will only be found through prison guard union negotiations. Either that, or the state will have to come up with a way to regulate cellphone use in state prisons, a concept that is gaining traction.

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