San Diego

Cell Phone Smuggling Into Donovan State Prison on the Rise

Prisoners turn to illegal cell phones to run criminal enterprises and communicate with family outside of their jail cells.

More and more prisoners inside Donovan State Prison in Otay Mesa are armed with a new type of weapon each year: cell phones.

The reasons for the phones vary from trafficking drugs from inside prison walls to communicating with outside gang members or just to speak to loved ones at home. 

Regardless of the uses, an analysis of data obtained by NBC 7 Investigates found the numbers of illegal cell phones confiscated at San Diego’s only state prison have increased dramatically, with 2018 seeing the second highest number confiscated since 2010. 

According to the data, Donovan guards confiscated 439 cell phones from inmates in 2018.

That was the highest number of cell phones confiscated since 2015, when guards that year seized 418 phones from prisoners. 

Considering Donovan’s population in 2018 of 3,841 inmates, the number of phones seized that year could have been in the hands of one in every nine prisoners. 

“Drug dealers can contact people in Columbia via the cell phone in their cell,” said Kevin Tamez, a Prison Security Consultant. “The uses of them are endless.” 

Tamez, who manages a prison security firm outside of Philadelphia, said having the ability to make calls is not the main issue. The largest threat is the advancement in technology, turning normal cell phones into laptops which can easily be hidden inside an inmate’s cell. 

“If you have one of the most dangerous prisoners on the face of the earth who can sit inside a prison and play with a laptop, then that’s a scary thought,” added Tamez. 

But running criminal enterprises from inside prison walls is not the only reason prisoners are getting their hands on phones. Tamez said the cost to call family and friends is far more for those who are serving long sentences. 

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit that researches prisons and mass incarceration, state prisoners pay on average more than $2 for a 15-minute phone call. 

But Tamez said prisoners can pay anywhere from several hundred dollars to a thousand dollars for a cell phone, giving them freedom to communicate as long as they want, as often as they want. 

It’s a tempting proposition for prisoners and their families. 

“A lot of people in prison come from families that just don’t have a lot of money,” said Tommy Winfrey, a former inmate who spent 20-years in a state penitentiary and who now works in the juvenile justice system in San Diego. 

“Cell phones can be very tempting. It allows prisoners to reach outside the prison walls and communicate with people, be part of the world that they are so isolated from.” 

Vicky Waters, a spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, told NBC 7 Investigates that prisoners could face additional time, or lose credits, if they are found with phones in their possession. 

“Cellphones are dangerous contraband, because they can be used to facilitate or commit crimes, including illicit gang activity.” 

Added Waters, “The department has implemented many strategies to curb introduction and use of contraband, including cell phones, such as the use of parcel scanners, low-dose full-body scanners, and metal detectors.” 

Federal and state lawmakers have looked to pass legislation which would allow for jamming cell phone service inside prison walls, however, those laws are in the beginning stages. 

The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates airwaves, is also working on the issue.

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