Aiming to crack down on illegal cell phone use by inmates, a bill is moving forward in the California Legislature that would authorize the use of “managed access technology” to block wireless transmissions in California prisons.

The bill would allow the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to use technology to identify unauthorized cell phone signals and disrupt incoming and outgoing calls, text messages and e-mails within a prison’s perimeter.

Sponsored by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, the bill, SB 26, also punishes those who smuggle a cell phone into a prison with a fine of up to $5,000 per device and six months in jail.

“We know that inmates with cell phones are ordering murders, organizing escapes, facilitating drug deals, controlling street gangs and terrorizing rape victims,” said Padilla in a statement.

Matthew Cate, secretary of the CDCR, said approximately 6,000 phones were confiscated at state prisons this year from January to May and the proposed legislation would help fix the issue.

“Contraband cell phones in prison continue to be a problem for CDCR as they allow inmates to circumvent our monitoring process and commit crimes,” Cate explained in a statement. “SB 26 will strengthen our efforts to curb this problem.”

Padilla’s office reported that the number of cell phones confiscated in California prisons has grown tremendously in the last five years. According to the senator’s office, in 2006, prison officials confiscated 261 cell phones in California prisons, a number that rose to 10,761 in 2010.

Earlier this year, the CDCR reportedly began testing technology that block cell phone signals in one unnamed prison. Several months ago the National Telecommunications and Information Administration released a report detailing several technologies that could be used to thwart cell phones and detailed pilot projects under way in prisons across the nation.  

Unlike many bills that once signed by the governor are effective on Jan. 1 of the following year, Padilla added language into SB 26 that would allow the law — if it passes the Assembly and is ultimately signed by Gov. Jerry Brown — to be effective immediately.

Joe Panora, the CDCR’s CIO and director of enterprise information services, told Government Technology in an e-mail that the California Technology Agency is in the midst of a procurement process that will award a single statewide concession service contract for an Inmate/Ward Telephone System and Managed Access System (IWTS/MAS).

He added that the [CDCR] will be the primary user of the IWTS/MAS contract for inmate/ward domestic and international telephone services and for the management of authorized and unauthorized cellular wireless communications. 

SB 26 was passed by the California Senate and now awaits a vote on the State Assembly floor, which is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 2.

“Our goal is to get it out of the Assembly and to the Senate for concurrence on to the governor’s desk today,” said John Mann, a spokesman for Padilla, in an e-mail to Government Technology on Friday.

At press time on Sept. 2, the Assembly vote was still pending.

Brian Heaton  | 

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.