State prisons try to thwart cellphone use

Times Staff Writer

Cellphones, nearly as common as toothbrushes or televisions in normal society, are ringing alarm bells among authorities in the California prison system, where the phones are a growing form of contraband.

More than 1,000 cellphones and BlackBerrys have been confiscated during the last year after being smuggled into California prisons in a security breach that has authorities scrambling to stop illicit communication.

The problem was first noticed about seven years ago as the devices became tinier, but smuggling of the items in the 33-prison system has exploded in the last few years.

Police and prosecutors worry that the phones will help gang leaders and other convicts orchestrate criminal activity from behind bars. The problem has also caught the attention of state lawmakers, who are demanding an investigation into the sources and methods of phone smuggling and plan to draft legislation to provide tougher penalties for those convicted of the misdemeanor.

“It is a tremendous problem,” Anthony P. Kane, associate director for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told lawmakers. “Last year they [prison officials] confiscated over a thousand cellphones, including BlackBerrys. It breaches our security. It allows the inmates to conspire with people on the street to commit crimes.”


Lt. Tim Wamble of California State Prison, Solano said his prison has confiscated 289 cellphones since May of 2006, including 221 so far this year.

Some of those caught with phones are suspected of being involved in gangs, officials said.

Gary Hearnsberger, head deputy in charge of the Hardcore Gang Division of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, said having a cellphone could allow a gang leader to coordinate murders, run drug operations or order the intimidation of witnesses, for example.

Such actions are much more difficult via mail or prison phone calls monitored by officials, as all calls are supposed to be, Hearnsberger said.

“It’s a serious problem,” he said.

He said cellphones also allow inmates to communicate with prisoners in different wards or institutions to coordinate criminal activity.

State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) sent a letter last week to James Tipton, director of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, calling for an investigation of the scope and cause of the problem.

Padilla noted that inmates in Sao Paulo, Brazil, last year used cellphones to coordinate simultaneous uprisings in 73 prisons and on the streets that left more than 40 police officers and guards dead.

“Cellphones in the hands of maximum-security inmates pose a clear and present threat to the safety of the general public and the security of correctional officers and staff within our correctional facilities,” Padilla wrote.

Prisons have always faced the challenge of blocking illicit communications between inmates and the outside world, included coded letters, said UCLA law professor Sharon Dolovich.

“Prison gangs don’t just run black-market operations in prison,” she said. “The new generation of prison gangs, for example Nuestra Familia, run gangs on the streets.”

Advocates of prison reform say the state has provided an incentive for cellphone smuggling because it charges inmates up to four times the market rate for collect calls to their families from phones provided by the prisons.

“The bigger issue is the problem incarcerated people have keeping in contact with family members,” said Cheryl Branch, project director for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches Ex-Offender Action Network. “Most individuals who find themselves incarcerated are low-income. Their families cannot afford the cost of the collect calls.”

Donald Andrews, who was released in December from the Solano prison, said he heard about others using cellphones to get around having to pay exorbitant rates for using the prison phones to call home, though he never saw an inmate with one.

“It costs too much to call home on the regular phone,” said Andrews, who works for the Stop the Violence, Increase the Peace Foundation in Los Angeles.

Andrews said he curtailed his own calls home.

Bill Sessa, a corrections department spokesman, acknowledged that the state’s contract with Verizon Business and other telecommunications providers sets high rates for collect calls from prisons. The state receives $26 million a year in commissions -- less if phone use declines -- under the contract.

But Sessa discounted the idea that the high cost of collect calls is behind the proliferation of illicit cellphones, and he reiterated that cellphones are not allowed in prisons.

“We very strongly encourage communications between inmates and their families,” he said, noting the prison gives those with financial hardship free stamps and envelopes so they can write home.

Some of the illegal phones are brought in by visitors, who can have their visiting privileges reduced if they are caught smuggling them. Inmates also can have privileges taken away. Prison employees who smuggle cellphones are fired.

Chris Cisco, warden at the Solano prison, said at a Senate Rules Committee hearing last month that the state has discovered employees smuggling 35 to 50 phones at a time into some prisons. Most of those employees are non-officers, such as cooks and nurses.

“It’s a big profit for those people,” Cisco said, “when you consider that they’re getting $400, $500 and $600 for each cellphone. It’s not a felony, so they are not ... worried about getting caught.”

Some of the cellphones are smuggled in pieces, secreted in packages, books and body cavities. Multiple people can use the same phone.

“We need to make the punishment more severe,” Kane told the Senate Rules Committee at the May hearing.