Should inmates be criminally charged when cell phones are found on their person? In Florida prisons, that can occur. But, in county jails, not so much. During a recent legislative debate, lawmakers discussed a bill making it illegal for local jail inmates to have cell phones within the facilities.
In December 2016, an Orange County jail inmate was found with a cell phone. Jail staff did not know how it got there, and when they contacted the sheriff’s office to investigate, their request was denied.
Why? Because under current law, while state prisons consider cell phones as contraband, cell phones in county jails are not considered illegal—though they can be confiscated.
“Some counties…the counties run the jail, and in some counties the sheriff runs the jail,” said Kelley Teague, the Legislative Affairs Director with the Orange County government. “And, so, in our case, we run the jail. And, we found a cell phone on someone and we have found cell phones on people who are incarcerated before. We can’t search them to figure out how they’re getting in. We can take them because it’s against the policies of the jail, but we can’t search them to determine [how they’re getting in].”
And, Captain Dennis Strange with the Orange County Sheriff’s office says it can be difficult for jail staff to do their job.
“Ultimately, right now, the way it stands is if an individual introduces a cigarette into the facility, they’re given what’s called a ‘disciplinary record,’” he said. “The individual is issued a disciplinary report. The same thing holds true with a cell phone. It’s held in the same standard as introducing one single cigarette. They basically have no teeth, and the cell phone creates a huge safety hazard for the personnel inside the facility.”
So, Teague and Strange are hoping lawmakers can step in, and help them restrict access to cell phones within the jail facility.
Rep. Jennifer Sullivan (R-Mount Dora) is sponsoring a measure to make that illegal in county detention facilities. Under her bill, violators caught with a cell phone would face a third degree felony charge.
“I think it’s important because there’s a strategic reason why they shouldn’t be having contact with the outside world, whether that’s to hurt themselves or those around them or to contact someone, perhaps that hasn’t been convicted yet or caught to proceed in whatever illegal action they were planning or doing,” she said. “I mean it poses a huge security risk to have these inmates being able make contact with anyone on the outside.”
While the language actually mirrors what’s in current state law for Florida prisons, the bill is drawing concerns among some lawmakers.
Instead of a third degree felony, some feel it should just be misdemeanor. Others are not too fond of creating another criminal offense because of a cell phone.
Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Coral Springs) says the way the bill is now it’s not getting to the root of the problem.
“What happens if we take this phone and we find that this person was just calling their kids,” he asked. “They’re a felon! Or, if we take the phone and we find out they were trying to commit a crime? They’re a felon. Why don’t we punish what they were trying to do with the phone? The phone itself shouldn’t be the felony. It should be what they were trying to do with it. I think that is what would protect the officers. I think that’s what the officers want to know. They want to know what these phones, how they’re getting in there. They want to know what they’re doing with these phones.”
Rep. David Richardson (D-Miami) says he feels strongly most cell phones are brought in by corrupt jail staff, whom he says should be a target as well in the bill.
He cites cases in which jailers help inmates set up innocent parties to take the fall.
“Quite often, one gang will plant a cell phone in another gang’s locker, and then they will rat them out, and then the officers will go find that cell phone, and then of course that person is now in trouble,” he said. “So, there is a lot of planting that’s going on. And, I want to highlight that when I say these phones are walking in the front door, I want to say that the vast majority of the staff and the officers at Florida Department of Corrections and are correctional system and our jail system are doing the right thing. What I’m talking about is a few bad apples.”
As for Sullivan, she says she’s willing to work with other lawmakers to amend the bill.
“I think we can, I know we can make this better,” she said. “But, I will say I do think there needs to be a deterrent, so that people don’t have these cell phones because it does pose a huge threat. And, at the end of the day, right now, our Sheriff’s don’t have the tools to be able to search the phones, get to the bottom of what’s going on. We need to equip them to be able to do that to get to the bottom of this, and that’s what this bill seeks to do.”
And, her bill passed with bipartisan support with three Democrats opposed in the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee. It has two more committee stops before it heads to the floor. Meanwhile, its Senate companion bill has not yet had a hearing.
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