Cracking down on prison contraband smuggling

AUSTIN, TX State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he was "disgusted with our prison officials" for failing to stop what he described as rampant security failures. Whitmire received calls from a death row inmate who, using a contraband cell phone, called him repeatedly and told Whitmire he knew the names of the senator's daughters.

Whitmire grew increasingly angry and agitated as the hearing wore on, telling prison officials that he wanted immediate action and "zero tolerance" for contraband smuggling.

"What I'm looking for is urgency!" Whitmire said, pounding on his desk. "Urgency of the moment."

Prison officials arrested the mother of the cell-phone wielding inmate, condemned killer Richard Tabler, on Monday. The breach prompted Gov. Rick Perry to order a systemwide lockdown and search for contraband.

"The exposure to the general public is great," Whitmire said. "No citizen should expect to receive a phone call from someone on death row."

Investigators say they have closed or are working on 21 cases of prohibited cell phones or cell phone components on death row this year. Some 700 cases are being investigated systemwide among the state's nearly 160,000 prisoners, including one case where officials have an X-ray of an inmate with a phone and charger inside the prisoner's body.

John Moriarty, inspector general at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said prison officials were conducting major sweeps and that there is "a lot of stuff being gotten rid of as we're speaking." Moriarty blamed a handful of corrupt guards for smuggling in cell phones, which can go for as much as $2,000 inside prison walls and are sometimes used to coordinate with gangs on the outside. He said the same system is used to smuggle in dope and cigarettes.

"All it takes is one (guard) and you've got a big problem," Moriarty said. "He can bring in a lot of phones and a lot of contraband."

Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, called a special hearing after Monday's arrest of Tabler's mother. Lorraine Tabler, 60, was arrested at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on charges of providing a prohibited item to an inmate, Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials confiscated a phone from her son.

Authorities found out about the phone when Richard Tabler made several calls to Whitmire between Oct. 7 and 19. At least nine other inmates shared the phone, and authorities are expecting to make more arrests in the case.

In the meantime, Whitmire and other senators on the panel pressed authorities to make immediate security changes, including physical pat downs of guards, the installation of more metal detectors and cameras and the use of drug-sniffing dogs.

Prison authorities acknowledged some contraband has slipped through metal detectors, but said internal policy prohibited patting down all correctional officers who enter prison facilities. They also said the combination of low salaries and big pay-offs for smuggling contraband kept their investigators busy.

"Every day we fight this battle and we do the best we can," said Maj. Joe Smith of the Polunksy Unit, home for male death-row inmates. "We do have good officers ... unfortunately we do have some that are corrupt."

The senators also pressed officials to use cell phone jamming technology, even though federal authorities are supposed to grant permission first.

In South Carolina, officials want to jam cell phone signals in prisons to prevent convicts from committing further crimes, but are blocked in that pursuit by the federal Communications Act, which prevents states from using jammers or otherwise interfering with federal airwaves. The Federal Communications Commission can give federal agencies the authority to use such jammers. But there's no such provision for state and local law enforcement.

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