Debra J. Saunders
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California prisons confiscated more than 10,000 cellphones last year. This year, officials at Corcoran State Prison found a cellphone with a camera in possession of convicted serial killer Charles Manson. It was the second phone found on Manson in two years.

In 1996, four men gang-raped a 15-year-old girl. They were convicted. But in 2008, the ringleader called the victim from his prison cell.

"To our horror," Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said at a press conference March 22, "there was nothing we could do about that."

In dysfunctional California, it is not illegal to smuggle a cellphone into a state prison.

State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, introduced a bill to make smuggling cellphones to inmates a misdemeanor -- and it passed last year. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it because it wasn't tough enough.

"Tell me how that makes sense," Ryan Sherman of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association asked. "At least then, it was a misdemeanor."

This year, Padilla introduced SB26 to make smuggling a cellphone a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine per phone. The bill passed through the Senate Public Safety Committee on March 22. But Padilla had to remove a provision to add two to five years to the sentence of an inmate caught planning a crime with a smuggled phone.

You can thank the committee chairwoman, Loni Hancock, D-Oakland, for watering down the bill. As the Los Angeles Times reported, she didn't care about the list of crimes -- including murder, kidnapping and witness intimidation -- directed by inmates via cell. She doesn't want to add to prison overcrowding.

To fight the problem, the corrections department launched "Operation Disconnect," which included unannounced inspections of prison staff. One such search at Avenal State Prison turned up 13 cellphones.

Avenal Public Information Officer E.J. Borla believes most phones find their way into the medium-security prison through visitors who find creative ways to smuggle contraband. Even if he's right, one rotten prison guard can do a lot of damage. In 2009, the state fired an officer who made $150,000 smuggling phones to convicts. Because he broke no law, he wasn't prosecuted.

The department has begun testing new phone signal-jamming technology, according to spokesman Paul Verke.

Why not search all the guards before they go to work? Here the prison guards' union is of little help. Officers are paid "walk time" while they suit up in steel-toed boots, utility belts and other gear. Going through a metal detector would cut into "walk time."

In that prison staff have the most to fear from well-connected convicts, couldn't the union give on it?

"Give on working for free?" union spokesman Sherman replies. After the furloughs, his people have given enough.

Gov. Jerry Brown just cut a deal with the union, which supported his candidacy. According to the Department of Personnel Administration, "walk time" didn't come up.

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Debra J. Saunders


 
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