Gov. Jerry Brown today signed an executive order and legislation intended to deal with the problem of cell phones being smuggled into the state’s prisons, but he artfully ignores the main source of those contraband phones, the employees who guard the prisons, and the main political obstruction to reform — the union that represents most of the state’s prison guards, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

Executive orders are toothless by nature, but this one carefully avoids tackling the problem head on, even as it calls for some reasonable reforms:

IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the CDCR use existing budget resources and pursue all available grants to conduct more thorough searches of people who enter prisons; to increase the number of random searches of inmates’ cells, prison property, and employees; to increase penalties for inmates in possession of contraband devices and anyone who illegally provides contraband devices to inmates; and to increase the use of canines and state-of-the-art technology to find and confiscate contraband cellular devices.

The legislation, SB 26, is a little tougher, but still focuses more on visitors than the well-paid union members who get bribed to bring these phones to gang members. The legislation would:

Provide, with exceptions, that a person who possesses with the intent to deliver, or delivers, to an inmate or ward in the custody of the department any cellular telephone or other wireless communication device or any component thereof, including, but not limited to, a subscriber identity module or memory storage device, is guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding 6 months, a fine not to exceed $5,000 for each device, or both that fine and imprisonment.

 The efforts call for a study of implementing airport-style screening devices at prisons. Think about that for a moment. When mostly law-abiding people head to the airport to take a family trip, they must endure increasingly intrusive screenings and X-rays and searches. At the state’s prisons, there is no such screening system. We can thank the obstructionist efforts of the prison-guards union. As always, unions zealously protect even the most corrupt and bad-behaving members, which creates something of a race to the bottom. (They create a race to the top only in the areas of pay and pension benefits.)

As The Los Angeles Times reported,

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.

In fairness, the legislation’s sponsor, Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, has been serious about taking on the union. This legislation is better than nothing and the governor deserves kudos for signing it, but it’s amazing to me how carefully everyone avoided the elephant in the cell block.

About the author: Steven Greenhut is the editor-in-chief of Cal Watchdog, an independent, Sacramento-based journalism venture providing original investigative reports and news stories covering California state government. Greenhut was deputy editor and columnist for The Orange County Register for 11 years. He is author of the new book, “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.”

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    One Response to Brown’s Prison Fix Downplays Union Role

    1. Jackson says:

      Why do we need to create new legislation when existing rules prohibit this type of activity (smuggling cell phones) already? Same is true for dealing with issues like illegal immigration. The laws already exist. Just enforce them and get on with it. If that includes installing equipment to scan people, just do it and hold the individuals who are breaking the law accountable.

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