Are prison inmates setting up 'hits' and other crimes by way of contraband cell phones?
It's a growing concern, after authorities last month found mass murderer Charles Manson with a cell phone, for the second time in 18 months.
Now, state lawmakers are moving to crack down on a problem that's threatening to spiral out of control. And prison staffers, including guards, have been implicated as a big part of it.
Last year more than 10,000 cell phones were confiscated from California prison inmates -- seven times the number found three years earlier. And, some corrective measures that could come at quite a price.
"My God, what else do we need to wait for? What else do we need to see?" asks State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-20th District). "[If] Charles Manson has a cell phone in California State Prison, we know we have a problem."
Padilla has introduced legislation that would impose more disciplinary action and longer sentences on inmates caught with the devices, and penalize others -- prison workers, contractors and vendors -- who bring them into prison facilities.
Prison guards and staffers apparently are involved, selling phones they smuggle in for money sent to their post office boxes by inmates' families.
"You would have to go through somebody higher up in the inmate population, approach them, and they would arrange everything for you," recalls Leslie Pruett, a former women's prison inmate who's just completed the "Second Chance" rehabilitation program in San Diego.
How much are correctional officers and staffers asking?
"Whatever they want to charge," Pruett says. "Between 500 and a thousand dollars."
Lawmakers want correctional officers to go through screening procedures. The officers' union says no problem. But they warn, that they'll wind up earning extra 'walk time' from the front gates, through screening, to their duty stations -- costing the state millions of dollars annually.
Meantime, a San Diego Assemblyman is recommending that guards and staffers caught smuggling cell phones be subject to criminal prosecution and long sentences.
And, that the system begin widespread use of electronic measures for cell phone surveillance and seizure.
"There's technology that allows the prison, within the facility to identify every call that's made in that prison by number, and monitor the conversation," says State Rep. Nathan Fletcher, (R) 75th District. "And if we'll deploy that technology in prisons throughout California, we'll be able to find out exactly which inmates have them."
Officials with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the union that represents prison guards, did not immediately respond to request for comment on the issue.