Tougher state law needed to keep cellphones out of prisons 

California state Sen. Alex Padilla, flanked by law enforcement officials, stood on the Capitol’s steps before an array of cellphones confiscated from prison inmates and declared that smuggling had become an epidemic.

It is, Padilla said, a “clear and present danger to public safety” as inmates use smuggled phones to harass victims and witnesses and plot other crimes. He called to the podium a woman who said she received harassing calls from her husband’s murderer.

Padilla et al. made a compelling case for a crackdown on smuggling cellphones — nearly 11,000 were confiscated last year. But the bill that cleared the Senate Public Safety Committee two hours later is rather wimpy. It makes smuggling nothing more than a misdemeanor, even for prison employees who are the sources of many illicit phones. Last year, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar Padilla bill on grounds that it was too weak and that smuggling cellphones should be a felony.

Padilla, a Los Angeles Democrat, says he would prefer the crime to be a felony “in my heart of hearts,” but that legislative committees had rejected the measure in the past. He says his current bill, Senate Bill 26, is “tough enough to make both smugglers and inmates think twice.”

But is it? Its penalty for smuggling cell phones could be as much as six months in jail for each phone. However, the committee chairwoman — Berkeley Democrat Loni Hancock — bulldozed Padilla into reducing penalties on inmates who use cellphones to commit crimes.

If prison cellphones are the peril that Padilla and others describe, then smuggling them to inmates or using them should be felonies and if anything, the penalties for guards and other prison workers who get caught should be especially harsh.

The ever-rising number of confiscated phones would indicate that lax security makes it a lucrative trade, with the going price about $1,000. While visitors to prisons undergo some security searches, employees are not searched for contraband, even though a number of them have been caught smuggling.

The state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is also exploring technological approaches, such as creating electronic dead zones that would render illicit cell phones inoperable inside prison walls, called “managed access.” The agency is testing technology already implemented in the Mississippi prison system with hopes of installing it in California if the money to buy it becomes available.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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