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Smuggled Cellphones A Growing Problem In California Prisons

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) -- They may be locked up, but California prison inmates have never been so well-connected. Cellphones are being smuggled in by the thousands, and some prison workers may be part of the problem.

A new report by the Office of Inspector General said some 20 employees, including guards, have recently lost their jobs for helping to smuggle the phones in.

The prison system is now turning to special dogs to help stop the problem. "Draco," a specially trained K-9, is an expert in finding contraband, which in recent years has expanded well beyond drugs or weapons. Nowadays, cellphones are a growing problem.

Sgt. Wayne Conrad, Statewide Canine Coordinator at the R. A. McGee Correctional Training Center, said the phones have a unique odor. The prison system has trained about a dozen dogs to find the smuggled phones.

"Just in the last year and a half, the dogs alone have been responsible for recovering over 3,000 cell phones." Conrad said.

Cellphones in prisons are illegal and a misdemeanor. But since they go for as much as $1,000 behind bars, it is becoming increasingly common to see phones smuggled in.

"IPhones, BlackBerries, we've found them all," Conrad said.

Smuggled phones are the subject of a new report by the inspector general, the watchdog that keeps track of the prison system. The report highlights the fact that some 20 employees were either fired or decided to resign over the past year, after it was determined they were smuggling cell phones into the prison.

With the phones, inmates can do everything from coordinate gang activity to plan escapes. Sex offenders can also keep victimizing with the devices.

"You have sex offenders on these cellphones that have internet capability now, communicating with young children on these social networking sites. So it's a very, very serious problem," Conrad said.

In some of these cases, inmates have struck up romantic relationships with medical personnel or other lower-paid employees. The inmates con them into bringing cell phones onto the property. In one case, the report said a female guard was believed to be "sexting" an inmate, as naked pictures of herself were found on an inmate's phone.

But it's much more common to smuggle them in other ways. Sometimes, accomplices simply throw a bag with a phone just over the perimeter fence, knowing an inmate work crew will be coming by later to pick up litter.

"You've got to remember these prisons are miniature cities. Just like any other city. You got trucks and people coming in all day long. And there's a million ways for the inmates to figure out how to get this stuff in. Correctional officers I think is just a small portion of it," Conrad said.

Dana Simas, spokesperson of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation told CBS 5, "CDCR has tens of thousands of employees who have direct contact with inmates. While most adhere to the rules and refrain from any kind of inappropriate relationship with inmates, it does happen unfortunately. If/when CDCR finds out, all cases are sent through the disciplinary process."

"A few cases of inappropriate relationships should not paint the picture for tens of thousands of honest and dedicated CDCR employees," Simas said.

Prison officials said they are working on towers that will only allow cell signals from approved phones. They said construction has already begun at an undisclosed prison location, which will be finished at the end of the month. The new towers will be installed in all prisons by 2015.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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