Gangs use cell phones and social media networks to coordinate crime

Liset Márquez (Contra Costa Times)
ONTARIO – These days social networking sites and cell phones are not just a place to catch up with friends.

Gangs in Southern California are using them to orchestra crime, commit fraud and traffic drugs.

The issue is so severe at California Institution for Men in Chino, that Lt. Thomas Goetz said he has assigned two staff members to try to eliminate the use of pre-paid disposable phones in the prison.

“The cell phones have become a communication tool between inside and outside gang members that we can’t circumvent,” he said.

Issues like this were discussed on Thursday by a panel of law enforcement experts at an Assembly Select Committee hearing held at the Ontario Police Department.

The hearing was organized by Assembly Majority Leader Alberto Torrico, D-Fremont, and was joined by Assemblywoman Norma Torres, D-Ontario.

The severity of the problem has prompted Torrico and Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills, who was also in attendance, to consider co-authoring a bill that would make it a criminal offense to have or sell a phone in a prison.

Currently there is no such legislation. Also, FCC prohibits the state from putting in scramblers to stop the use of phones in prisons, Goetz said.

The main problem for prisons is that there is no way to trace the information that is being relayed in the phone calls, unlike land lines which can be monitored, he said.

It’s getting to the point that gangs are circumventing all our investigations because of these media outlets,” said John Santos, special agent with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Special Services Unit.

And the only consequence to inmates is having 30 days added to their sentence, and that’s only if the cell phone is connected to a crime, he said.

In many cases, those 30 days would be wiped out for good behavior, Goetz said.

In 2007 there were only a handful of throw-away phones confiscated at CIM and only 30 in 2008, Goetz said.

But prison officials have already taken away 147 cell phones this year, he said.

A standard cell phone could be sold at the prison for $300, but one with texting or picture-taking capabilities could sell for $500, he said.

“We trying to find out who’s bringing them in and where they are coming from,” Goetz said.

Some prepaid phones have come in via visitors, others through the mail, and there are cases of staff inside the prison selling them to inmates.

“We have an enormous problem in state prisons, and it is starting to create a huge workload for us,” Goetz said.

But using phones isn’t the only method, gang members are also turning to social media networks to recruit members. They are also using their sites to openly talk about crimes they have committed, Hunter said.

Skipp Townsend, an interventionist, has been involved in the culture of gang violence for years and has noticed the recent trend of technology in gangs.

Youth in the East Coast are finding gang members through social networking sites and getting in contact with them, he said.

“These are groups of children with no guidance. They are reaching out to The Crips, and they want to create a hierarchy and they are doing it via the Internet,” he said.

However, governments are not just sitting back.

Agencies like Ontario Police Department have found ways to use sites like YouTube to their advantage, said Detective Gabriel Gutierrez, who is assigned to the Gang Suppression Unit.

A suspect on trial tried to convince a jury that he was not affiliated with any gang, he said.

The Police Department was able to show the jury a video posted on YouTube of the individual with the gang, and he was convicted, Gutierrez said.

But you can’t solve the issues of gangs by locking them up, said Jerry Hunter, assistant chief of the state Department of Justice, Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement.

In order to adequate combat gangs, there needs to collaboration between politicians and law enforcement as well as community leaders and parents, Hunter said.

“If unchecked, gangs are capable of gripping entire communities with fear, violence, drugs, graffiti, and other crimes,” said Torres.

“When communities are crushed under the weight of these crimes, we cannot sit back and let it happen. Our top priority should be to provide clean, safe environments for our children to grow and our families to live in.”

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