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California prisons could get tougher on cellphones

The handsets are already banned, but a proposed law would make it a crime for prisoners to possess them.

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California state senators on Wednesday passed a bill making it a crime for prisoners to possess a cellphone or for anyone to smuggle one into an inmate. The bill, which passed by a 35-0 margin, now heads to the Assembly, where it will be heard this summer.

The legislation, prison officials and lawmakers say, is a vital tool to keep cellphones away from inmates who increasingly use them to maintain ties with nefarious gang members, secretly orchestrate crimes both inside and outside jails, and even plan escapes.

While cellphones are banned in state prisons, it's not illegal to use one or, for that matter, for someone to sneak one to an inmate. And thousands of phones have found their way across prison walls – smuggled by corrupt prison staff, mailed by family members, or literally thrown over fences. Since the beginning of this year, about 1,400 cellphones were confiscated in California prisons, and 2,800 were found last year.

The measure puts California, which has America's largest prison population, in line with a growing number of states that have either passed laws to combat the scourge of cellphones inside jails and prisons or enacted new procedures – from daily searches of prison employees to using dogs that can sniff out cellphones.

In Texas, cellphones have shown up on death row, and one inmate used the device to call a state senator. In Maryland, an inmate is accused of planning a murder via a smuggled phone, and in Oklahoma, an official says, inmates used banned handsets to spark prison riots.

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