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Nebraska bill would ban most cellphones in state prisons

January 31, 2019 GMT

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Smuggling a cellphone into a Nebraska prison could soon lead to a misdemeanor charge under a bill designed to help corrections officials, who confiscated more than 250 contraband phones last year.

Nebraska corrections director Scott Frakes told a legislative committee Wednesday that it’s a major concern for his department. His comments came in testimony on a bill by Sen. Justin Wayne, of Omaha, to formally ban most cellphones from state prisons.

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A report last year from the Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System identified cellphones as a “significant safety concern” because inmates can use them to coordinate gang activity and communicate in secret with the outside world.

“Nothing good comes from contraband,” said James Davis III, a deputy ombudsman for correctional services.

Frakes said many phones are thrown over security fences in the middle of the night or smuggled inside by visitors and prison employees. At least two phones were sent to prisons through the state’s laundry system — one from a state-run psychiatric hospital in Lincoln and one from a state veterans’ home.

Davis said contraband cellphones can sell for $1,500 to $2,000 apiece in prison, creating a big incentive to smuggle them inside.

Last year, a former Nebraska State Penitentiary employee was sentenced to a year in jail for smuggling a cellphone to a prisoner in December 2016. She pleaded no contest to a charge of unlawful acts by a corrections employee. Another former staff member at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution was sentenced to probation for a similar breach in 2017.

Supporters of the bill said there’s no formal law in place for non-employees.

Frakes said he opposed an initial version of the bill because it restricted his authority to make exceptions, but pledged to work with Wayne to try to find a compromise.

“I believe we’ll be able to make some other adjustments and land in a place where we agree,” he said to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Wayne said he’s still working on the bill to decide who would be exempt. The original bill would have applied to county jails, raising concerns from defense attorneys who frequently meet with their clients behind bars. Wayne said he has crafted an amendment that would let jails set their own policies.

“Allowing inmates to have cellphones behind prison walls creates a dangerous situation,” he said.

He said he preferred to keep violations as a misdemeanor to account for inmates who are using contraband phones for non-nefarious purposes, such as calling a loved one.

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