It might surprise most Californians to learn that even behind bars, prisoners in California are regularly using cellphones to communicate with people both inside and outside prison walls. Prisoners are more than willing to pay $100 to $1,000 for an illicit cellphone and the access and power they gain.
In California, home to the country’s largest state prison system, more than 10,000 cellphones were confiscated from inmates last year. That’s 40 times the amount discovered in 2006.
Society is at risk because cellphone communication gives prisoners a tool to orchestrate crimes, harass witnesses, organize retaliation against other inmates, plan an escape or even order a hit on someone – all without leaving their prison cell.
Inmates must not be allowed to participate in criminal activity, calling the shots and directing drug deals or murders on the streets from their prison cells. California needs a strong law to get cellphones out of its prison cells.
With smuggled cellphones and smartphones, prisoners can text, surf the Internet and post videos to YouTube. Last year in Sacramento, one inmate even recorded and narrated a video on his cellphone camera during a prison riot. Another used a cellphone to harass the wife of a man he had murdered.
One of the most notorious prisoners to be caught with a cellphone was Charles Manson, who has been caught twice with a cellphone. Leaders of prison gangs such as Nuestra Familia and Mexican Mafia use cellphones to manage their criminal enterprises from behind bars. They are able to contact associates to arrange drug shipments and sales, and even to plan and carry out murders of rivals or potential witnesses.
The Mexican Mafia has become the intermediary in coordinated efforts to transport and distribute narcotics for Southern California street gangs. This prison gang is extremely powerful with 2,650 leaders and associates in the California prison system.
The tragic gunning-down of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Abel Escalante in 2008 was the result of marching orders by imprisoned Mexican Mafia overlords. Their method of communication: a cellphone.
Inmates are getting their hands on cell phones from visitors or prison personnel. Although cellphones are banned from prisons, there are no real sanctions for accomplices who smuggle them in. One corrupt correctional officer pocketed close to $150,000 in a single year by selling cell phones to inmates.
In August, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill I authored to abate this problem in federal prisons. The Cellphone Contraband Act classifies cellphones and other wireless devices as contraband material in federal prisons. I am proud that my bill put in place serious penalties for cellphone possession and smuggling.
But state prisons desperately need a similar law.
State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, has introduced a bill to criminalize cellphones in California prisons. This bill would make smuggling or illegal possession of a cellphone in state prisons by any person, employee or nonemployee a misdemeanor offense punishable by six months in jail and a fine of up to $5,000 per device. That bill is now before the Senate Appropriations Committee and due for a vote in late May.
Cellphones in state prisons serve one goal: to promote more criminal activity. Padilla’s bill should be passed swiftly to get these cellphones out of prisons and reduce the threat to society.