California prison guards union called main obstacle to keeping cellphones away from inmates

Members of the politically powerful union would have to be paid millions extra to be searched on their way to work. Prison employees, about half of whom are guards, are the main source of the smuggled phones.

Reporting from Sacramento —

Lawmakers struggling to keep cellphones away from California’s most dangerous inmates say a main obstacle is the politically powerful prison guards union, whose members would have to be paid millions of dollars extra to be searched on their way into work.

Prison employees, roughly half of whom are unionized guards, are the main source of smuggled phones that inmates use to run drugs and other crimes, according to legislative analysts who examined the problem last year. Unlike visitors, staff can enter the facilities without passing through metal detectors.

While union officials’ stated position is that they do not necessarily oppose searches, they cite a work requirement that corrections officers be paid for “walk time” — the minutes it takes them to get from the front gate to their posts behind prison walls.

Putting metal detectors along the route, with an airport-like regimen involving removal of steel-toed boots and equipment-laden belts, could double the walk time, adding several million dollars to officers’ collective pay each year, according to a 2008 Senate analysis.

Since then, cellphones have proliferated exponentially in California’s state lockups. This year, state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) is calling on Gov. Jerry Brown to “put the [search] issue on the table” in contract negotiations with the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn.

“Everybody coming into the state Capitol building has to go through a metal detector…. You even get searched when you go to a Lakers game,” said Padilla, who for three years has sponsored unsuccessful legislation to crack down on the contraband phones. “Why don’t we have that requirement at correctional facilities, of all places?”

Brown, whose campaign received generous financial support from the union and who made one of his few public appearances between the November election and his January inauguration at the union’s annual convention in Las Vegas, would not say whether searches are under review.

“Our office does not discuss the details of pending contract negotiations,” said Brown spokesman Evan Westrup, who noted that the prison system is testing technology to block cellphone calls in prisons.

More than 10,000 cellphones made their way into California prisons last year — up from 1,400 in 2007, said corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton. Two of those wound up in the hands of Charles Manson, who is serving a life sentence for ordering the ritualistic murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others in 1969.

The phones can fetch as much as $1,000 each behind prison walls, according to a recent state inspector general’s report, which detailed how a corrections officer made $150,000 in a single year smuggling phones to inmates. He was fired but was not prosecuted because it is not against the law to take cellphones into prison, although it is a violation of prison rules to possess them behind bars.

Analysts for the Senate Public Safety Committee who studied last year’s legislation left no room for doubt about who they believed was responsible for most of the unauthorized phones.

“All indications are that the primary source of cellphones being smuggled into prisons is prison staff,” they wrote. “The committee has been presented no evidence of visitors who are properly screened through metal detectors being responsible for the problem.”

Guard union spokesman JeVaughn Baker said pointing the finger at corrections officers is all wrong.

“Sure, there are instances where officers have brought them in,” Baker said. “But to say that prison staff are the most likely smugglers of cellphones is simply inaccurate.”

Asked whether union members would be willing to forgo extra pay for standing in line at metal detectors, Baker said, “The law demands that individuals are compensated for the time that they work.”

Padilla had a bill in 2008 that would have required searches of prison staff, but it died after union officials pointed out that extra pay would follow.

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2 thoughts on “California prison guards union called main obstacle to keeping cellphones away from inmates

  1. Profound reforms most generally follow disasters, major crises and first-class fiascos. California is therefore ready to solve its prison crisis with the following reforms:

    1. With regard to manufactured goods now made exclusively in foreign countries: (a) repeal the federal statutes that killed prison industries (Hawes-Cooper Act of 1929, Ashurst-Sumners Act of 1935, Walsh-Healey Act of 1936) and any state statutes that bar the sale or transportation of prison-made goods, (b) exempt and provide immunity for prison industries and employers from and against all labor and employment laws, wage & hour requirements, ADA, FMLA, discrimination laws, and all other worker protections; except OSHA should remain in full force and effect, (c) encourage secure private work communities and workhouses run by private businesses and religious organizations providing spiritual support, hiring prisoners to work under wages, hours and conditions of employment to be freely negotiated and agreed upon in writing, (d) make appropriate deductions from prisoners’ earnings for crime victim restitution, child support, court costs and costs of incarceration.

    2. Enact laws providing for judicial corporal punishment in lieu of incarceration, particularly for non-violent drug-related offenses and crimes carrying sentences of less than 5 or 10 years; with the following safeguards:

    (a) Administer corporal punishment only for offenses carrying potential sentences of confinement or incarceration. Allow incarcerated offenders the option of taking their sentences as corporal punishment after some period of incarceration. A court could enter alternative sentences in its discretion, using all available punishment options and sequences. One of the purposes of re-introducing corporal punishment is to reduce incarceration with community corrections. Corporal punishment would take place in the community.

    (b) Take into consideration the age, weight, health, physical condition and gender of the defendant in order to determine the offender’s ability to take corporal punishment. A formula or sentencing guideline could take account of these factors. Medical personnel could monitor the administration of punishment.

    (c) Administer corporal punishment only pursuant to a final judgment entered by a court of law, after a fair trial or plea agreement, and only in the discretion of the sentencing judge.

    (d) Impose corporal punishment sentences within a pre-determined sentencing schedule using standardized instruments, force and procedures.

    (e) Conduct corporal punishment in public, supervised by the judge who sentenced the defendant, and videotape it for a public record.

    (f) After corporal punishment, the convict should work full-time, go to school full-time, or participate in substance abuse rehabilitation. Required work would include employment in a work community or workhouse, at a job offered by the private sector, at a job provided by the public sector, as a fulltime volunteer, or as otherwise ordered by the court. Some juveniles from bad homes would need to recover in a better moral and physical environment.

    3. Enact laws providing for the placement of color-coded metallic or plastic collars on convicted felons or juvenile offenders in lieu of incarceration. Variations in weight, comfort, composition and color are based upon the gravity, type and time of the offense and current behavior. Shades of red = violent crimes, shades of green = property crimes, shades of yellow = sex crimes. After entry of a judgment by a court, allow probation officers and school officials to adjust the collars, within limits set by the judgment or statute, up or down depending upon the current behavior of the offender.

    John Dewar Gleissner, Esq. graduated with from Auburn University (B.A. with Honor, 1973) and Vanderbilt University School of Law (1977). “Prison and Slavery – A Surprising Comparison,” a brand new 438-page book, contains authority, rationale, details and suggestions for curing the nation’s prison crisis; for sale at (including Kindle and a free “Look Inside” feature) and


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