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Lawmakers Consider Bills On Cell Phones In Prison

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- Maryland lawmakers pushed for several measures to help cut down on contraband and fight corruption in correctional facilities on Tuesday, but some lawmakers questioned whether stiffer penalties for bringing in and receiving contraband cell phones went too far.

Officials from the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services are backing several measures in the aftermath of a contraband conspiracy at the Baltimore City Detention Center, where 44 people were indicted last year including 27 correctional officers. Corruption at the state-run detention center enabled a gang to smuggle in drugs and cell phones.

One measure would increase the charge for providing a cell phone to a detained person from a misdemeanor to a felony. That would raise the penalty from up to three years in prison to five years.

Jim Green, the Baltimore police department's government relations director, said the phones can be used by inmates to commit dangerous crimes inside and outside prisons.

"The possession of a cell phone in the institution is as lethal as a weapon, and that is why we have advocated for stronger penalties," Green testified before the House Judiciary Committee.

Supporters of strengthening the laws cite the 2007 murder of a witness in Baltimore County who was killed after an inmate called a hit man from his cell phone.

But some lawmakers questioned whether the possession of a phone by an inmate should be a felony. Del. Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore, said inmates often use cell phones to call attorneys or family members.

"I'm an attorney. I get calls from my clients who are in detention centers all the time, and they've never asked me to hit anybody," Anderson said.

Another measure, sponsored by Howard County Del. Guy Guzzone, would increase the penalty for possessing a cell phone in prison from three years in prison to five years, but would keep the crime a misdemeanor. The measure also would require a sentence to be served consecutively, rather than concurrently.

Del. John Cluster, R-Baltimore County, is sponsoring legislation aimed at stopping cell phone contraband by prohibiting a person from attempting to deliver a cell phone or accessories such as a charger. His measure also would make a first-time violation a misdemeanor and a second offense a felony.

In a separate proposal, the department wants to expand the use of polygraph tests on correctional officers as a condition of their employment. Now, the department can only require polygraph tests of applicants. Gregg Hershberger, secretary of the state's public safety and corrections department, said expanding polygraph authority is a key component to fighting corruption.

"We have the resources to root out corruption, but we need the statutory tools to do it," Hershberger said.

Sue Esty, legislative director of the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said correctional officers can be subject to polygraphs under current law as part of an investigation. Esty said polygraphs are not 100 percent accurate, and the bill would subject correctional officers to polygraphs on demand.

"And that's not an appropriate use of a polygraph," Esty said. "It should be in concert with an investigation of some kind."

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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