Capitol Alert

Lawsuit prompts California to reduce some cellphone prison penalties

A confiscated cell phone photographed in 2010 at the California Correctional Training Center in Galt. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is in the process of reducing the penalty for inmates found with cell phone accessories such as chargers.
A confiscated cell phone photographed in 2010 at the California Correctional Training Center in Galt. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation is in the process of reducing the penalty for inmates found with cell phone accessories such as chargers. ccostas@sacbee.com

The rapid increase of illicit cellphones inside California prisons prompted state lawmakers five years ago to pass legislation imposing new penalties on inmates, as well as making it a crime for people to smuggle phones behind bars.

The 2011 measure followed years of warnings that inmates were using contraband phones to commit new crimes, from arranging murders of gang rivals to harassing victims and their families.

“Smuggled cellphones in our state prison system continues to be a problem, a problem that not only is dangerous but is growing,” then-state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, told colleagues as they considered Senate Bill 26 in June 2011. Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law and officials quickly put its provisions into effect.

261 Number of cellular phones confiscated from California prisons in 2006

But state prison officials now are in the process of rolling back some of the rules. Under a change scheduled to take effect later this month, inmates found with cellphone accessories such as SIM cards or chargers will face the loss of up to 30 days of good time credit, just one-third of the current maximum penalty.

The reduction follows officials’ conclusion that lawmakers were unclear about who the maximum penalty in SB 26 applied to: inmates who have actual cellphones, or inmates with any cellphone-related items. An inmate had sued the department over the penalty.

“We did find a vulnerable spot,” Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for the corrections department, said of the accessory rule, adding that officials do not believe the reduced penalty will set back efforts to prevent inmates from getting phones. The department has no plans to sponsor legislation to clean up the difference., she said.

11,000 Number of cellular phones confiscated from California prisons in 2010

California prisons have always faced difficulty keeping contraband such as drugs out of prisons. The cellphone problem has paralleled the growing ubiquity of the devices in society, with 261 phones confiscated in 2006, increasing to about 11,000 in 2010. Smuggling by prison workers exacerbated the situation, officials have acknowledged.

Attempts to deal with the phones initially stalled in the Legislature or faced the veto pen. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed an earlier Padilla bill, writing “I cannot sign a measure that does so little.”

Lawmakers passed SB 26 the following year. The measure called for an inmate found with a phone to lose up to 90 days good-time credit and anyone trying to sneak a phone to an inmate would be guilty of a misdemeanor and face up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.

John Lovell, a lobbyist for the California Police Chiefs Association, which supported the 2011 bill, said it’s too early to tell if the reduced phone accessory penalty will undermine efforts to keep cellphones out of prison.

“If anything, the issue has gotten more intense rather than less,” Lovell said of the phones. “The notion that you could have someone in prison with a cellphone basically calling the shots outside prison is serious."

The Department has found that rapid changes in cellphone technology make blocking them incredibly challenging.

January 2016 report by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Another aspect of the 2011 bill also isn’t working out exactly as intended.

SB 26 sought to smooth the way for using phone-jamming systems at prisons, with the goal of preventing inmates from being able to send or receive calls or messages.

Officials awarded a phone-blocking contract in 2012 after a pilot project worked well and the program expanded to 18 prisons. The department, though, recently suspended the “marginally effective system” because “rapid changes in cellphone technology” thwarted efforts to jam communications by contraband phones.

Waters said the department is looking for a new approach.

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