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Calif. mulls criminalizing cell phones in prison

A California lawmaker is trying to make possessing a cell phone in state prisons a crime to crack down on the number of contraband cell phones in prisons.

One California state senator is trying to crack down on inmates using cell phones while serving time.

California State Senator John Benoit discusses cracking down on cell phones in prison during a press conference. Senator Benoit's staff

Prison inmates in California aren't really permitted to have cell phones. They have to forfeit their devices before being locked up. But that hasn't stopped thousands of phones from being smuggled into prisons each year. In fact, officials say that the number of cell phones confiscated in California prisons has doubled in the last year from 1,400 devices in 2007 to about 2,800 in 2008. And the problem appears to be getting worse this year.

Currently, being in possession of a cell phone or smuggling it in for someone else is only a rules violation. But California State Sen. John Benoit wants to make it a misdemeanor crime with a maximum penalty of a $5,000 fine for a prisoner to possess a cell phone in any state prison.

Benoit and representatives from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation held a press conference Tuesday to discuss the new bill he is introducing called SB 434.

Allowing prisoners to access cell phones is a huge problem, because many inmates use them to plan escapes, plot violent crimes both inside and outside of the facility, and to conduct drug deals, officials said.

"Cell phone smuggling into California's prisons is a very serious and growing problem," Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said during the press conference. "Public safety officials in prisons and prosecutors on the outside need additional tools to combat cell phone smuggling to inmates."

Part of the problem seems to stem from prison guards who are often part of the smuggling ring. According to the Sacramento Bee, sworn and civilian correctional employees are suspected of smuggling in more than half of the cell phones that end up in prisons. And it's not difficult to understand why, when some inmates are willing to pay up to $1,000 per phone. One prison employee admitted to the newspaper that he made up to $100,000 in one year smuggling phones into the prison where he worked.