Getting cellphones out of inmates’ hands

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How in the world did Charles Manson get hold of a cellphone? Apparently the same way thousands of other inmates have. Cellphones, it turns out, are ubiquitous in California’s correctional facilities. Guards have confiscated 8,575 of them this year, according to the California Department of Corrections, up from 1,400 in 2007. Manson is perhaps the best-known inmate to flout the rules, but the easy access to the outside world, unmonitored by officials, is a serious problem that extends well beyond one infamous criminal. Hard-core gang leaders have been found directing drug deals, intimidating witnesses and planning escapes from their jail cells. Stiffer penalties are clearly in order for what is a genuine threat to public safety, not an infraction.

For one brief moment last summer, Democrats and Republicans united and made smuggling phones to inmates a misdemeanor punishable by fines of $5,000 to $15,000. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, however, vetoed the bill on the grounds that it did not go far enough. The practice should be a felony, he insisted, not a violation of less import than sneaking a prisoner a beer.

Now the gridlock that so infuriates voters has returned. Democrats are resisting measures that would increase the prison population — such as creating new categories of felonies — on the grounds that federal judges have ordered the state to reduce the population by more than 40,000 inmates. The number of prisoners per facility can’t be reduced, however, because Republicans balk at building more prisons. So it’s a stalemate on the cellphone issue for the moment.


Meanwhile, there is a thriving black market in phones. One guard made $150,000 furnishing phones to inmates, a report by an inspector general noted last year. There are various factors driving the demand for phones, but one is an effort by inmates and their families to skirt crushing fees. Inmates are supposed to use prison phones to call collect, and often when prisons enter into contracts with telephone companies, the “captive audience” is hit with exorbitant rates. According to inmate advocates, a 15-minute call from San Quentin prison to Oakland costs $5, almost twice as much as the same call from outside the prison. Last year, Los Angeles County supervisors opened up the jail phone contract to bid after learning that inmates were paying about 30% above the state average.

The solution may lie in a pilot program scheduled to begin next year that allows calls from approved cellphones. But for now the only recourse prisons have is to take away the phones when they are found and to charge inmates with violating policy. Until a rational approach to managing the problem can be reached, don’t be surprised by that call from Manson.