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Crime

10,000 Cell Phones Smuggled Into California Prisons in 2010 (BONUS: How You, Too, Can Go Into the Smuggling Biz!)

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Fri, Feb 4, 2011 at 2:00 PM

click to enlarge A California prison guard chills with some confiscated cell phones - TIME MAGAZINE
  • TIME Magazine
  • A California prison guard chills with some confiscated cell phones
Cell phones and prisons -- just call 'em "jail cells"! -- are a real winning combo.

It's the ideal situation for any criminal who can stand to conduct business without the rush of the live hunt:

Mobile phone in hand, bad guys are free to direct drive-bys and drug deals from the comfort of their own cells, kicked back and enjoying the prison slop while their minions carry out the dirty deeds. It's like "Call of Duty" -- all the power trip and adrenaline, without the bloody mess! What's not to love?

A lot, obviously, for the rest of gang-riddled California. A front-page Los Angeles Times story this morning blames prison staffers for smuggling in the phones -- a fact with which the Weekly and the Senate Public Safety Committee agree -- and the all-powerful California prison-guards union for standing in the way of a fix, by demanding their members be paid for the time it would take to conduct security checks.

Of course, that would cost millions.

At the union and throughout the prison system, all the way up to the governor, cracking down on cell-phone influx is a question of financial priority. So who's willing to give?

First things first: Keep in mind that prison staff are not required to pass through metal detectors upon entering the workplace. Visitors are.

Most infamously, two phones were confiscated from Charles Manson last year. Listen to one of his creep-tastic outgoing calls here. Additionally, from the Times:

The phones can fetch as much as $1,000 each behind prison walls, according to a recent state inspector general's report, which detailed how a corrections officer made $150,000 in a single year smuggling phones to inmates. 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 to possess them behind bars.

Back in October, when LA Weekly news editor Jill Stewart wrote "Cell Phones Flooding to Mexican Mafia Prisoners: Schwarzenegger vs. Legislature Pissing Match Means No Crackdown," State Senator Alex Padilla had recently proposed a bill that would fine anyone bringing a cell phone into a state prison $5,000. Then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it, saying the $5,000 fine would be a ridiculously minuscule punishment for a huge crime.

Problem is, as it stands, the "crime" carries no punishment at all.

At the time, Padilla said publicly that he was "caught between a legislature which won't approve new felonies due to prison overcrowding, and a governor who won't sign a bill unless it includes a felony."

Behind the scenes, however, state officials told the Weekly that the wealthy and influential prison-guard union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association -- a huge campaign contributor to Schwarzenegger, and Brown after him -- fought Padilla's proposal tooth and nail, largely accounting for its downfall.

Ryan Sherman, director of research and analysis for the union, got into a little comment-board spat with the Weekly's Stewart last time this issue came up: Sherman claimed the union never opposed the bill.

However, it'd make sense if the union did: After all, its No. 1 priority is protecting the monetary interests of California prison guards. And they might be the ones subjected to the $5,000 fine, if they turn out to be the ones smuggling in phones, as the Senate Public Safety Committee's new analysis suggests.

Today, Sherman maintains his claim that the union would be fine with the searches --if, and only if, guards were compensated for the "walk-up" time it took to conduct them.

Senator Padilla's latest revival of his $5,000-fine proposal, up for review by Brown and suspiciously clear of the search requirement, is detailed by the Times:

Padilla had a bill in 2008 that would have required searches of prison staff, but it died after union officials pointed out that extra pay would follow.

This year, Padilla, who also gets financial support from the union, has steered clear of it by omitting staff searches from a bill that would impose a $5,000 fine on anyone caught trying to smuggle a phone to an inmate. The proposal would also lengthen sentences for prisoners caught with phones by up to five years if it can be shown that they used them to commit crimes.

Still, both Padilla and the Senate Public Safety Committee are well aware that the searches are vital to punishment -- and that unscanned prison staff are to blame for much of the crimes.

Really: How likely is it that a guard would be found smuggling a phone without a way to check his pockets?

Padilla tells the Times: "Everybody coming into the state Capitol building has to go through a metal detector.... You even get searched when you go to a Lakers game. Why don't we have that requirement at correctional facilities, of all places?"

And, in a 16-page analysis of Padilla's bill by the Senate Public Safety Committee, analysts recognize the probable source of the phones, by process of elimination:

"All indications are that the primary source of cellphones being smuggled into prisons is prison staff. The committee has been presented no evidence of visitors who are properly screened through metal detectors being responsible for the problem."

Brown won't comment on whether the searches are even up for consideration. Oh god. We were hoping this term really would be his last foray into politics -- which would, ideally, ease allegiances. This silence better not mean a certain all-powerful union has a hand over his mouth.

Meanwhile, union spokesman Sherman takes a firm stance on phone smugglers:

"I'm sure some [guards] have brought them in, and they should be fired," he says. "They should be thrown on the other side of the bars for doing that."

However, he's also firmly against unpaid searches:

"Is that fair to do to employees?" he asks. "If you were required to show up to work 15 minutes before your shift started, and you don't get paid for that, how would you feel?"

OK. State guards also have far higher pensions and benefits than any (far more highly trained) sheriff's deputies at county prisons, but that's another story. The other half of state prison staff -- teachers, janitors, etc. -- are under different union heads, anyway. It's easy for the Times to put all the blame on most politically visible union giant, but are they really the only possible source of revenue for fixing a problem as dire as 10,000 shot-callers directing crime from behind bars?

What about the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation itself? It's loaded with giant construction bonds (can no exception be made for an army of scanners and staff to run them? That would certainly leave the guards' union without a monetary excuse), a bottomless well of administrators and thousands of illegal immigrants stuck in the U.S. system. Stay tuned: We'll update with all the ways we think the prisons could save money under Governor Brown.

Fine -- y'all can have your BONUS now, as promised in the headline. Union spokesman Sherman reveals:

• "My Blackberry doesn't set off all sorts of metal detectors." Enough said.

• Throw a soccer ball or football over the fence to inmate workers roaming the prison grounds. What's inside? Definitely not stuffing. (Might as well add some pot while you're in there.)

• Want to get really hardcore? Cram the thing up one of your... private places [OK, we thought of this one]. Lord knows prison-visitor scans are no TSA crackdown. How else would we sneak the sex toys in for our conjugal visits?

Like we said: Updates to come.

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