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Federal Cell Phone Ban Becomes Law; California Bill Vetoed, then Re-Introduced

Legislation barring the possession or use of cell phones by federal prisoners, the Cell Phone Contraband Act (S.1749), was signed into law by President Obama in August 2010.

The legislation comes in response to a rising number of cell phone confiscations by the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). In 2009, over 2,600 cell phones were discovered in minimum security prison camps. Another 600 were found in the BOP’s low, medium and high security facilities.

The new law makes possession or use of a cell phone or wireless device a crime punishable by up to a year in prison. The law also covers the smuggling of cell phones into BOP facilities.

“Now that this bill has become law, prison gangs will no longer be able to use cell phones to direct criminal attacks on individuals, to decide territory for the distribution of drugs, or conduct credit card fraud,” said Democratic U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein, a co-sponsor of the bill.

A report on the effectiveness of the new federal law is due by August 2011. The report will also address the prison telephone rates charged by the BOP. [See: PLN, April 2011, p.1].

The California legislature passed a similar bill, SB525, in August 2010. The bill made it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a $5,000 fine, for anyone to deliver a cell phone or other wireless device to a state prisoner. However, the legislation was vetoed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said the penalties did not go far enough.

“Although our prisons continue to face drastic budget cuts and overcrowding, it is inexcusable to treat the threat of wireless communications devices in prisons so lightly.
Signing this measure would mean that smuggling a can of beer into a prison carries with it a greater punishment than delivering a cell phone to the leader of a criminal street gang,” the governor stated.

Another bill, SB26, introduced by Democratic California state Senator Alex Padilla in February 2011, proposes to criminalize possession of a cell phone in prison. Prisoners caught with a cell phone would lose good time credits. The bill also provides for a six-month jail term and a fine of up to $5,000 for visitors or prison employees who deliver or have the intent to deliver cell phones to prisoners.

SB26 was suspended in April 2011 after state officials determined it would be too expensive to implement, but the bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 26, 2011. An estimated 10,761 contraband cell phones were found in California prisons last year.

“U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s legislation banning cell phones in federal prisons paved the way for SB 26 finally moving forward. I thank her for engaging in this issue, advocating for my bill, and for continuing to be a leader in public safety issues. She understands that cell phones are crime multipliers – they are used by inmates to commit crimes inside and outside of prisons,” said Senator Padilla. 

Forty-three states and the federal government currently have laws that prohibit the possession of cell phones by prisoners. SB26 remains pending in the California Senate.

Sources:,,, Senator Alex Padilla press release

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