San Quentin guard, 2 others charged with smuggling cellphones to death row inmates

Two San Quentin guards walk a prisoner through a yard.
A guard at San Quentin State Prison and two others have been charged in a scheme to smuggle cellphones to death row inmates.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

A San Quentin prison guard and two others were charged in federal court Wednesday in a scheme to smuggle cellphones to death row inmates, officials said.

Keith Christopher, 37, of Pittsburg, appeared in federal court in San Francisco on a charge of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud using interstate wires. He was accompanied by Isaiah Wells, 32, of Tracy, authorities said. They did not enter pleas.

A third co-defendant, 45-year-old Tanisa Smith-Symes of Las Vegas, was arrested there and is slated to appear before a magistrate in a federal court Thursday.


The complaint alleges that Christopher and the two others smuggled 25 cellphones into the prison’s East Block, where inmates who received the death penalty are held.

Cellphones have long been a security issue in California’s prisons, and inmates are not allowed to have them.

San Quentin guard Gilbert Polanco died after a bus with 121 inmates from outbreak-ridden Chino prison arrived at San Quentin, lawsuit alleges.

Aug. 24, 2021

Prosecutors say that Smith-Symes worked with her boyfriend, a death row inmate, to ship phones to Wells. He then handed them off to Christopher, who sneaked them into the prison.

Inside the prison walls, the phones were sold to inmates for up to $900 each, according to the complaint.

For his role in the scheme, Christopher charged a bribe of $500 per phone, prosecutors say. Bribery payments were allegedly sent by Smith-Symes to Christopher directly or through Wells or others.

The investigation that uncovered the scheme was conducted by the FBI and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Office of Internal Affairs.


Christopher and Wells were released on bond after being charged. They will be back in court on Sept. 17.

The Times could not identify attorneys for the three who were charged, although Christopher is being represented by a public defender.

The three face up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.