Smuggled cell phone problem at notorious prison overblown

March 3, 2011 2:48:24 PM PST
Late last year then-Attorney General Jerry Brown scolded the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for the surge in smuggled cell phones getting into the hands of violent inmates.

"For a $9 billion expenditure, that's a failure we can't tolerate," Brown said at a press conference announcing a crackdown against the notorious Nuestra Familia prison gang.

Brown's criticism focused on Pelican Bay State Prison, where he said gang leaders locked in isolation units were able to pass messages to associates who then used cell phones to transmit orders for murders, drive-by shootings and other gangland-style crimes on streets throughout California. (Authorities say they confiscated some 11,000 cell phones in California prisons last year and earlier this year confiscated a phone being used by convicted serial killer Charles Manson.)

Brown's solution was an "electronic net" over Pelican Bay capable of blocking illicit cell phone calls by inmates while allowing others to pass through.

The state will soon begin experimenting with so-called "managed access" technology at two prisons, at an estimated cost of $1 million per facility

But it seems that in the case of Pelican Bay, the state's highest security and most feared lock-up, Brown may have got his facts wrong.

According to department statistics obtained by California Watch, authorities have confiscated fewer than 12 cell phones from Pelican Bay inmates since 2006, putting the facility at the bottom of the state prison system for illicit cell phones.

Prison spokesman Christopher Acosta says cell phones simply aren't much of a concern at Pelican Bay.

"We haven't had a big problem with the phones like other institutions have," he said.

State officials speculate that Pelican Bay's remote location near the Oregon border means cell phone reception is thin, undercutting the lucrative market for smuggled phones. (They can go for as much as $1,000 in other facilities.)

However, cell phone operators such as Verizon promise full digital coverage to the area around the prison, though it's unclear whether the signal can penetrate the thick concrete walls of the facility.

Officials say Pelican Bay also gets far fewer inmate visitors due to the great distance people have to travel to get to the facility. (The prison is some 700 miles from Los Angeles.)

A third reason could be how the prison is run. A series of court rulings over the years forced Pelican Bay to clean up all aspects of its operations, including security and staff disciplinary rules.

For example, Lt. Acosta proudly describes monthly random staff searches at Pelican Bay, something you hear little about elsewhere in the prison system. And the staff at Pelican Bay is more likely to write up inmates for misconduct than their counterparts at other facilities.

So is an expensive electronic net the solution for rampant cell phone smuggling behind bars, as Gov. Brown suggested?

Probably not, at least for Pelican Bay. As for the other prisons, the state is planning a conference next week to show off the latest in high-tech phone jamming gadgets.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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