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"Let Freedom Ring" -- Cellphones Abound In California Prisons

Over 1,000 cellphones and Blackberrys were confiscated in California's 33 prisons in the past year. While such contraband was at a trickle seven years ago, the technology has reduced the size of these items to permit a veritable flood today -- 221 alone at the Solano State Prison in the first six months of 2007. At the going rate of $400 to $600, some employees have been caught smuggling up to 50 phones at a time.

Anthony Kane, Associate Director for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), told legislators recently, "It's a tremendous problem." The dangers are plain. Gang members can use the phones to clandestinely direct activities on the streets from behind the walls, noted Gary Hearnsberger of the Los Angeles District Attorney's Hardcore Gang Division. Imprisoned gang leaders could direct killings, run drug operations or intimidate witnesses, he stated. Although mail and normal phone calls are screened to prevent such activities, cellphones escape oversight. Of course, if technology can permit monitoring, this could prove a boon to catching and prosecuting such miscreants.

State Senator Alex Padilla wrote Corrections Secretary James Tilton requesting a full investigation, noting that such devices in the hands of maximum security prisoners posed a threat to the general public as well as to prison staff. Padilla noted that in Sao Paulo, Brazil, cellphones were used in 2006 to coordinate uprisings in 73 prisons and on the streets that left more than 40 police and guards dead. But prisoners in Brazil, in addition to having cellphones, are organized and united.

One reason suggested for the rapid increase in such phones might be the incentive to avoid the exorbitant rates charged for normal prison collect calls -- many times the highest non-prison rate. These rates devolve from the structure of CDCR's phone bids, where the award goes to the highest bidder, i.e., the one who promises the state the greatest kickback. CDCR collected $26 million in such "commissions" in 2007 off the backs of the largely poor people whose loved ones are in prison.

However, an investigation into the sources of phone smuggling may prove embarrassing. Most are traced to prison staff. While the legislature is contemplating enacting tougher penalties than the current misdemeanor limit, this may backfire. It remains to be seen if any penalties are enacted against the staff who smuggle the cellphones in. After laws were enacted making it a crime to bring tobacco into prisons, it created the perfect defense for involved prisoners to insulate themselves from disciplinary sanctions: "If you punish me, I?ll press charges against you."

Let freedom ring.

Source: Los Angeles Times.

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