Plugging holes in our law against smuggling prison contraband

The following guest editorial appeared in editions of the Prosser Record-Bulletin and Dayton Chronicle during the week of March 10.

By Sen. Maureen Walsh

This year I am the proud sponsor of a bill that I am sure will have a strange ring to it. Imagine, going to prison for possession of a cell phone with intent to deliver.

But that’s exactly what should happen if the intended recipient is residing at one of our state’s correctional institutions.

This legislation aims to plug a few holes in our law against smuggling contraband into Washington prisons. I have sponsored the Senate version of this measure, SB 5888. An identical House bill, HB 1871, sponsored by Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, is poised for a vote on the House floor.

It already is a crime in this state to provide banned materials to prisoners. Some types of contraband are obvious – alcohol and drugs of all types, both legal and illegal. Also guns, knives, shanks and shivs. But things get a little murkier when we consider an item most of us carry with us every day — the garden-variety cell phone.

Highly prized by prisoners, cell phones offer a way to communicate with the outside world, unmonitored by authorities. Prison officials regard them as a primary security threat. Ex-cons report that a disposable phone selling for $20 at any store might fetch as much as $400 in prison. Drug gangs use them to communicate with lieutenants in the field. In Georgia, inmates used cell phones to run a scam from behind prison walls, duping civilians into paying bogus fines for missing jury duty. In another Georgia prison, inmates took selfies as they beat fellow prisoners, then texted photos to the victims’ relatives and demanded cash.

In South Carolina, corrections officers are seizing cell phones at a rate of one for every three prisoners. Washington’s record is quite a bit better – last year prison authorities seized just 12 phones from inmates, not counting those intercepted before delivery, for a rate of 1 for every 1,416 prisoners. But the phones keep coming. They are thrown over prison walls, shot from potato guns, left in places where work-release crews will find them – and in one recent Florida case, even delivered by drone.

That Florida incident points to the problem with our law. A mother and daughter were nabbed with their remote control just outside the prison gate. Their drone never reached its destination. In Washington, to be charged with Introduction of Contraband, a felony, the delivery must be completed.

It also is a felony for a visitor to possess contraband on prison grounds. Most of the time that’s sufficient to cover the gap, because drugs and weapons are easy to distinguish from permitted items. A cell phone is not.

This year’s legislation addresses the problem by redefining the crime to add “intent.” The bill expands the prohibition to include delivery, or possession with intent to deliver, any alcohol, intoxicant, cell phone or any other electronic telecommunications device.

The safety of our prisons is a paramount concern for those of us who represent the 16th Legislative District. Walla Walla is the home of the Washington State Penitentiary, and it is one of the community’s largest employers. Inmates themselves deserve a safe environment. So leave the cell phones at home, and don’t even think about trying to bake a cake with a hacksaw inside.