One of organized crime's more potent weapons of late has been the mobile phone. If you've ever wondered how a prison-based organization like the Mexican Mafia can be so effective, or why even some prison officials have said prison gangs essentially run their lockups, the preponderance of smuggled-in, prepaid, throwaway phones might answer some of your questions.

That the devices can be slipped to convicts without much outside repercussion, however, was an eye-opening notion for us. A bill proposed by Pacoima State Sen. Alex Padilla will try to dissuade friends, family and homies from smuggling communications devices into state lockups. This week it was passed by the state senate.

“Cell phones in the hands of inmates presents a clear and present threat to the safety of correctional employees, inmates and to the general public,” said Senator Padilla. “This is a growing problem. Prison officials confiscated 261 cell phones in California prisons in 2006. Last year, 6,995 cell phones were discovered in state prisons. Current law does not provide any criminal sanctions for delivering cell phones to inmates; this bill will change that.”

Padilla proposed similar legislation, including sanctions for prisoners who use phones, more than two years ago, but the bills were shelved as the senate confronted repeated waves of budget disasters.

Prison officials have said that phones are used by inmates to order contraband, perpetrate identity fraud and plan escapes. Prison officials in many states would like to simply jam mobile phone signals, but they don't have the jurisdiction: Only the FCC can do so. Last summer corrections officials from 29 states asked the FCC to revisit its rule.

State Department of Corrections rules do treat mobile phones as contraband with internal rules that would, for example, strip visitation rights from someone who tries to give one to a prisoner (prisoners could also lose privileges if caught with one). But Padilla's bill would make it a matter for the courts: It would be a misdemeanor crime to smuggle a mobile phone into a prison with the intent to give it a convict. The punishment: A fine of up to $5,000 per device.

It's better than nothing. But we're guessing that for some prison-based organizations that see phones as an essential tool in their crime business, $5,000 would still be an investment worth making.

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