Surprised by a revelation that Texas convicts can receive e-mails in state prisons, legislative leaders said Friday that they plan to investigate how the multimillion-dollar, no-bid deal came about and without any public debate.
And lawmakers and prison investigators said they have security concerns because e-mails can be sent from anonymous users with little trace of their true source.
Prison officials defended the e-mail system, saying the contract was handled properly and the system has operated without problems or security issues.
Even so, House leaders said they are researching to determine whether the e-mail system is allowed by a 2007 state law that permitted pay phones in Texas' 112 prisons.
Only incoming e-mails to convicts are allowed. In February alone, 111,000 e-mails were sent into state prisons, officials said.
Legislators said they first learned of the system in an American-Statesman report Thursday about an investigation of a prison smuggling ring, in which authorities had intercepted incoming e-mails as part of their ongoing case.
"This e-mail system may have tremendous benefits, but I have a lot of questions," said House Corrections Committee Chairman Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin. "My committee is looking into this — how the contract came about, who signed it, what the rationale was behind it, whether the safeguards are appropriate, why the Legislature was kept out of the loop on this.
The security benefits are enormous from providing inmates secure avenues for legitimate communications and monitoring illicit contacts. As evidence of that effectiveness, the fact that inmates may receive email came to light after saved incoming messages helped break up a prison contraband smuggling gang. Before the new system was installed, those communications might take place through smuggled notes or illegal cell phones.
Communications, like contraband, can always enter and exit prisons through illegitimate means. So providing a venue for legitimate communication gives prison operators more tools to encourage positive interaction with family members, attorneys, etc., in the outside world and discourage or punish those violating the rules. Legislators are right to look closely at the agreement if they weren't aware of it. But when they do, I suspect they'll discover that - for the exact same reasons it was wise to install the new phone system - it makes sense to allow limited, monitored inmate email and would be a disservice to discontinue it.