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California prisons could get tougher on cellphones

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"These people have been segregated from the public for a reason, and to allow them to have unfettered access to the Internet or cellphones certainly undermines security as well as the punishment they've been sentenced to," says state Sen. John Benoit (R), who introduced the bill after touring a prison in his Riverside County, Calif., district.

After walking through the facility, he asked a group of gang suppression officers what he could do to help them better perform their jobs. "They almost answered in unison: outlaw cellphones. And I was taken aback. You mean they aren't already outlawed?" he recounted.

Critics say California's current prison policy on cellphones amounts to a simple slap on the wrist for inmates. In a report issued this week, the California Office of the Inspector General said that efforts by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to find and confiscate cellphones "have mostly proven ineffective."

The current policy allows prison administrators to reduce a prisoner's good-behavior credit if he or she is found with a cellphone, ban visitors caught trying to smuggle in phones, and fire employees caught peddling mobile phones. By contrast, the proposed law is a powerful deterrent, Senator Benoit says, because it carries a possible criminal charge and fines of up to $5,000.

Still, both Benoit and Richard Subia, associate director for the division of adult institutions in the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, wanted a bill with more teeth. They would like to see offenders face felony charges.

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