Block the signal: Prisons battle contraband cell phones

High tech cell phones have become the contraband of choice for inmates in California prisons, with 4,858 discovered in 2009.

This year the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sponsored state legislation (Senate Bill 434) to create a criminal penalty for contraband cell phone smuggling in state prisons. Unfortunately, even though the bill had strong bipartisan support, the California State Assembly failed to pass the bill to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for his signature. Governor Schwarzenegger is fully aware of the danger posed by cell phones in the hands of inmates and supports our efforts to combat prison contraband.

Without penalties for smuggling, however, more and more cell phones will find their way into prisons. Even worse, federal regulations currently prohibit states from using available technology to block cell phone signals in prisons. I urge our elected officials to vote for the Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009, authored by U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (S. 251).

Our agency is now faced with the reality of incarcerated felons having unfettered communication with their criminal enterprises outside, sharing information from prison to prison and jeopardizing the safety of our staff, victims and the community.

Sophisticated smart phones have made their way into the hands of inmates. These phones are capable of capturing photographs and video and sending text messages. Inmates can access the Internet to gather personal information on victims and staff. Child molesters can download pornographic images of children. In addition, cell phones have been used in the past to coordinate terrorist activities and threaten government officials. This poses a severe security breach for prisons nationwide and is a threat to public safety.

The incentive is huge. Selling contraband cell phones can bring quick cash. Inmates then "broker" the telephones and charge other inmates for calls. Don't be fooled. Calls are not made by inmates to keep in contact with their family members; there are traditional phone lines in prison available for that purpose. Smuggled phones are used to coordinate drug deals, stay connected with other gang members both inside and outside prison and commit just about any other crime imaginable.

This is a growing problem. Confiscated phones are piling up. Even with our added interdiction efforts, there appears to be no end in sight. In September, staff at Avenal State Prison in California's Central Valley intercepted two bags containing a total of 217 pouches of tobacco, 91 cell phones, 34 DVD movies, five ear buds and one blue tooth device. The estimated black-market prison value of this delivery alone is roughly $48,000.

The Safe Prisons Communications Act of 2009 will stem this tide by taking the signal, and thus the incentive, away from inmates. It will increase safety and security for all prisons nationwide and cut down on contraband smuggling: already this year 4,858 contraband cellular phones have been confiscated in California prisons, up from 1,400 in 2007.

Enough is enough.  Inmates use 21st century technology to their advantage in furthering their criminal activities while the Federal Communications Commission requires the prison system to remain in the dark ages.  It is time to allow correctional agencies to block the signal for public safety's sake.

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