Bill Would Ban Cell Phones for California Prisoners

Published July 1, 2009

A California state senator has introduced legislation to make it a crime for inmates to possess cell phones in prison.

Senate Bill 434, sponsored by state Sen. John Benoit (R-Riverside), passed the upper chamber in early May and was awaiting action in the California Assembly at press time. The bill would make it a misdemeanor carrying a $5,000 fine if a prisoner is found in possession of a cell phone.

Benoit wanted to make the crime a felony, but the state is currently honoring a moratorium on creating any new felonies.

More Jail Time

About 2,800 mobile phones were confiscated from prisoners in 2008, and an additional 1,400 have been taken already this year.

At present, a prisoner caught with a cell phone receives a warning about violating the rules imposed by the state Department of Corrections. Prison guards or other individuals caught smuggling mobile phones to prisoners receive toothless warnings as well, Benoit said.

“The Department of Corrections thinks this [bill] does not go far enough, but this still makes it a criminal offense,” Benoit said. “And being charged and convicted of any crime while in prison means you spend more time in there—just from the reduction of good time credits.”

Jammers Under Consideration

Other states have proposed installing jammers around prisons to disrupt the reception of cell phones and render them unusable. The Federal Communications Commission recently issued a waiver allowing the Washington, DC Department of Corrections to test cell jamming technology.

But Berin Szoka, director of the Center for Internet Freedom at the Progress & Freedom Foundation in Washington, DC, cautions against such policies.

“This technology sounds like an excellent solution to a serious problem—the illicit use of cell phones inside correctional facilities by prisoners across the country,” Szoka said. “But there’s one important problem: The FCC … is essentially ‘waiving’ a federal statute [that prohibits phone jamming]. [A]gencies can’t just ignore acts of Congress, no matter how good the policy reason for the waiver is.”

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.