When Los Angeles–based state Sen. Alex Padilla read Vanity Fair's 2007 tale of the criminal takeover of the streets of São Paulo, Brazil, by imprisoned murderers, who managed the coordinated feat for several days using cell phones, he went to work finding out if California prisoners were directing crimes from cell phones smuggled into prisons.
Padilla learned, from reluctant California state corrections officials, that crimes are indeed being quietly orchestrated with virtual impunity by cell phone–wielding members of the Mexican Mafia, assorted murderers and other vicious thugs while they are incarcerated in California state prisons.
Prisoners are engaging in cell phone–ordered murders, drug shipments, revenge attacks and other severe crimes using their choice of contraband Samsungs, iPhones, Nokias, Motorolas, Sony Ericssons and others.
Since January 1, 7,000 illegal cell phones have been seized in California prisons, and thousands are believed to have been missed.
Yet last week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Padilla could not overcome their differences to fix a fast-escalating public-safety threat that virtually every elected official in Sacramento agrees is a mess.
Schwarzenegger vetoed scores of bills last week, the deadline for signing or killing new laws. Among them he rejected Padilla's Senate Bill 525, which would have slapped a $5,000 misdemeanor fine on anyone caught smuggling a cell phone into prison. With other related fines, the misdemeanor would have meant a serious bite of about $15,000.
Yet a disgusted-sounding Schwarzenegger, in his veto message, noted: "Signing [it] would mean that smuggling a can of beer into a prison carries with it a greater punishment than delivering a cell phone to the leader of a criminal street gang."
In response, a piqued Padilla, a Democrat who normally works fairly well with the Republican governor, fired off a statement saying 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."
The veto of SB 525 is really about the partisan gridlock that's left California voters disgusted by the 120 state legislators and governor.
Last week, likely voters in California gave the state Legislature a bottomed-out approval rating of 11 percent, and the governor an approval rating of 28 percent — not much better than his all-time low of 23 percent — in a poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California.
In fact, thanks to gridlock, Padilla probably had no choice but to limit his cell phone–crackdown law to a misdemeanor that's lighter than the punishment for smuggling a can of beer into prison.
That's because, in the severe extremes now gripping Sacramento, the Democrats who control both the Assembly and the Senate no longer vote new felonies into law.
The two chairmen of the state's Senate and Assembly Public Safety Committees, Democrats Mark Leno and Tom Ammiano of San Francisco, respectively, are widely seen as among the California Legislature's furthest-left members. They are following a standing policy of opposing laws that create new felonies — until California's prison-overcrowding problem is reduced.
But prison overcrowding won't be reduced unless Schwarzenegger and the Republican minority in the Legislature agree to significant new taxes to create extensive programs that move prisoners from cells to rehab, or agree to raise taxes to build significantly more prisons — or, alternatively, agree to release large numbers of state prisoners.
With only a handful of legislators on either side willing to negotiate over such major battleground issues in the severely divided Sacramento Statehouse, nothing moves.
"We have shot-callers in our prisons directing killings on our streets," says Padilla's chief of staff, Bill Mabie, "so it is getting very similar to what was happening in São Paulo, Brazil, and it isn't very far-fetched that we could have coordinated actions directed on our streets — ordered from several prisons at once just like what happened in Brazil."
In a previous effort to crack down on cell-phone smuggling into prisons, Padilla and former Republican state Sen. John Benoit of Riverside County tried to persuade the senate Public Safety Committee to agree to make smuggling a cell phone into prison a felony in California.
Padilla and Benoit failed in that try.
Benoit, who is now a Riverside County Supervisor, says, “Hats off to Senator Padilla for trying again this year.”
Benoit and Padilla’s failed 2009 law, Senate Bill 434, “would have imprisoned people who smuggle cell phones to prisoners” and lengthened the term of any prisoner caught with a cell phone. This year’s watered-down version, vetoed by the governor, did neither.
Benoit notes with frustration, “Yes it costs money from the state budget to put more people in prison by making it a felony” to smuggle cell phones to crime bosses and drug lords. “But it's clearly the right thing to do — and the cost argument is really a red herring.”
He says that if California had an anti-smuggling felony, “to the extent that you eliminate crimes ordered from prisons, you are actually reducing the number of new prisoners and reducing prison costs because you are cutting crime on our streets. So we’re in a circular argument here.”
But unable to get the Democrats in the statehouse to consider a felony this year, Padilla instead worked to convince all Republican legislators in both the Senate and Assembly to back his bill making the punishment a high-priced misdemeanor instead.
The Republican legislators agreed with the Democrats, and it landed on Schwarzenegger's desk with unanimous legislative backing last week.
But Schwarzenegger, noting that the cell phones are sold to crime bosses inside the prisons who are willing to pay thousands of dollars — nearly the $5,000 cost of the proposed misdemeanor base fine — was in no mood to go along.
Schwarzenegger even found a way to slam SB 525 in a veto message about an entirely unrelated bill, Assembly Bill 2012. That law backed by Democrats would have increased animal-neglect misdemeanors from a maximum of six months in jail to a maximum of a year.
Wrote Schwarzenegger: "I cannot support a measure that increases the potential jail time for offenses against animals while the Legislature fails to provide incarceration ... for offenders that smuggle wireless-communications devices into our state prisons."
The Sacramento stalemate over halting the flow of cell phones into the hands of hardened criminals is no small thing for Los Angeles and other cities with major gangs and heavy Mexican Mafia infiltration.
Several days ago, two more men were ordered to stand trial in Los Angeles for the 2008 gunning-down of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Abel Escalante.
Escalante's murder in the tough Los Angeles neighborhood of Cypress Park, L.A. Weekly has previously reported, was the tragic outcome of marching orders put out via cell phone by imprisoned Mexican Mafia overlords who sought to regain control of Cypress Park after a 2008 raid in the area by feds and the LAPD.
The Weekly’s October 2009 cover story, “The Assassination of Deputy Abel Escalante,” described how the massive June 2008 raid badly damaged the Avenues gang presence, as well as the Mexican Mafia's influence, in the area.
Hoping to undo the effects of the raid, Mexican Mafia prison bosses who rule much of the Latino-gang drug trafficking in Los Angeles began rebuilding their operations in Cypress Park and in the Drew Street area.
According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, imprisoned drug lords using illegal cell phones, and messages passed during prison visiting hours, put out the word that they were taking back the streets of Cypress Park.
Among their strategies, police told the Weekly, the Mexican Mafia handpicked fellow prisoner Carlos Velasquez to take over drug operations from the decimated Leon family of Drew Street, whose leader, Danny Leon, had been killed in a dramatic shoot-out with the LAPD.
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Velasquez, one of three men now facing trial in Deputy Escalante's murder, was released from prison on July 24, 2008. Just nine days later, law enforcement officials allege, Velasquez shot down Escalante early one morning as the young deputy was preparing to head to work outside his parents' home.
He had just strapped a baby seat into a car.
Mabie says Padilla won't give up trying to get a cell phone–smuggling law on the books in California, because those reaping big profits by smuggling phones into prisons won't let up until California cracks down. And, he notes, other states are discovering the same problem.
"Alex's friend, who is a prominent legislator in Texas, received a call from a Death Row inmate — somebody on Death Row — using a cell phone, who threatened the legislator and his children," says Mabie. "Come on, this is crazy."