When the nation’s most notorious mass murderer has a phone under the mattress in his cell, it’s hard to ignore the fact that security has broken down in California’s prison system.
And it’s logical to finger prison guards, especially after a state investigation discovered that a guard made $150,000 in one year smuggling phones to prison inmates, and another had 50 phones in his car in a prison parking lot, labeled with the names of convicts.
But cracking down on the most likely culprits isn’t as easy as it sounds. If we try to halt the flow of phones by making guards go through tedious and time-consuming security checks, like airport passengers, we have to pay them for the hours that will take, under an arcane labor deal called “walk time.”
That would cost the state millions of dollars, according to a story by Times reporter Jack Dolan on legislative efforts to approve criminal sanctions.
But abolishing “walk time” isn’t the solution. The provision is a staple of contracts in law enforcement — called “pre- and post-shift activities” in some, and “donning and doffing” in others.
It’s rooted in federal labor laws that compensate employees for work-related tasks they must do before or after their shifts — like travel through locked doors and across prison yards to posts in isolated gun towers.
For California prison guards, that translates to an extra hour of pay each week. Thirty years ago, “we cut a deal with the union,” said Craig Brown, who was part of the state’s negotiating team back then. “We said, ‘We’ll pay you for 12 minutes every day, whether you walk a minute or a half hour.’” It wasn’t considered a perk back then, he said, but a way to keep California on a budget.
Now Brown is on the other side, as chief lobbyist for the union of prison guards. And he bristles at the notion that guards are the bad guys in the cellphone scandal.
“They don’t just come in with employees, they come in by mail, they come in by visitors, they come in over the fence,” he said. “When an inmate wants a phone, somebody is going to supply him.”
Sure. But according to lawmakers, that “somebody” is most likely a prison employee.
Brown, and others before him, said phones in the hands of inmates jeopardize the safety of guards. Inmates have tried to organize institutional riots, escapes and prison crimes.
“The 90-plus percent of our good officers who want these things to run safely want to kick the ass of the guy that brings the cellphones in, because it endangers them,” Brown said. But they’re not willing to spend unpaid time lining up to be herded through metal detectors checking them for contraband phones.
Nor, it seems, are they willing to snitch on colleagues selling phones to convicts. “It’s a difficult individual decision,” he said. “Some officers would probably turn their head and pretend they didn’t see it. And some officers would try to solve the problem.
“Most of them just want to go to work, do their jobs and go home safe.”
Which is probably true for most of the inmates.
If I take Craig Brown’s word that the typical cellphone smuggler isn’t a corrections officer, then I might as well take Najee Ali’s word that the typical inmate with a contraband cellphone isn’t Charles Manson texting his followers.
Ali, a high-profile activist in Los Angeles’ black community, came home from prison last week. He spent two years behind bars for trying to bribe a witness in a criminal case involving a family member. He served his time at two prisons, Tehachapi and Avenal, in a medium-security dormitory “with three guards watching 1,000 inmates.”
And he kept in touch with folks back home on a BlackBerry he acquired behind bars, purchased for $500 from an inmate “who had a relationship with a guard.”
Inmate cellphones, in Ali’s view, are an “open secret” and a prison-tolerated management technique, he said. They help tamp down tensions among antsy convicts in overcrowded prisons. “If you have half the guys in a dorm with cellphones, that’s 500 guys who are pacified and not a threat to anyone’s safety.”
The idea of Manson with a flip phone fuels our outrage. “But for every person doing something illegal, there are hundreds of guys who just want to talk to their families and keep in touch with what’s going on back home,” he said. "...They’re talking to their mamas, their wives, looking at photos, checking on their Facebook pages.”
Guards look the other way at the black-market deals, he said. A state study showed that a prison employee can make $1,000 on a smuggled phone. “With pay cuts, furloughs, it’s tough for them,” Ali said. “The same guards who are bringing in the cellphones are the ones now acting all up in arms.
“At the end of the day, if the guards did not want us to have those phones, we would not have them,” Ali said. “They know it makes us less of a threat, to them and to each other.”
The worst-case scenarios are pretty bad: inmates on clandestine phones planning escapes, arranging drug deals, ordering hits on enemies.
But what Ali wanted to talk about was far less troubling: “You share your cellphone with other inmates, that eases a lot of tension throughout the building.
“It brought a sense of normalcy to my life. If we’re being real about this, it’s too far gone to stop it.”
Instead of metal detectors or high-tech scrambling systems, we ought to think about regulating prisoners’ access to cellphones, he said. Why not let some convicts have access — maybe minimum-security inmates or those with good prison behavior records?
“You could restrict the hours, like maybe they could only use them from 7 to 9. Or create a process for handing them out, like you check out a library book,” he said.
Ali’s idea could be a tool to promote order in our overcrowded prison system. And it might make honest men out of those prison guards who are drawn, like criminals, to a black market system.