Monday, October 20, 2008

Even death row not immune to contraband smuggling

There's no more secure environment in all of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice than death row, so how did murderers there get access to cell phones used to make thousands of calls, including one to state Sen. John Whitmire whose family was implicitly threatened? Reports AP:
Texas prison officials Monday arrested the mother of a death row inmate on charges she paid for cell phone minutes for an illegal phone that had been smuggled in to her condemned son.

The inmate, Richard Tabler, shared the phone with nine other inmates, who made 2,800 calls in 30 days. Tabler called a key state senator, telling him he knew his daughters' names.

While Lorraine Tabler, 60, was being 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, prisoner Richard Tabler. ...

Prison officials said Richard Tabler and as many as nine other death row inmates made 2,800 calls from the cell phone in the last 30 days.

Authorities found out about the phone when Richard Tabler made several calls to state Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, between Oct. 7 and 19.

"Whether it's a citizen or a senator, no one should be contacted by an incarcerated offender who is using an illegal cell phone," Criminal Justice Board chairman Oliver Bell said Monday.

Tabler told Whitmire he knew the Houston Democrat had two daughters, knew their ages and knew where they lived.

"He called his daughters by name," Moriarty said.

"Frankly, that scared the hell out of me," Whitmire told the Austin American-Statesman.

The inspector general's office opened a formal investigation Oct. 8, the day after the first call to Whitmire. Tabler called Whitmire again two days later.

Investigators determined the phone had been purchased in Waco in September 2007, that Lorraine Tabler had been buying time for the phone, including a purchase on Oct. 7 at a Wal-Mart store in Waycross, Ga. The investigation also determined that calls were coming to the phone as well as going out.

Moriarty said the phone apparently was being passed among the other nine inmates in Tabler's immediate cell block area.

Those inmates also face criminal charges or disciplinary actions. ...

Illegal cell phone use is a continuing problem in prisons where the phones are considered a security breach and of particular value to gang members.

Moriarty said since Jan. 1, his investigators have closed or are working on 19 cases of prohibited cell phones or cell phone components on death row. 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.

It's fine to prosecute the inmate's mother who's paying the bill, but to get to the root of the problem they need to find the guards who smuggled cell phones onto death row - apparently in at least 19 documented instances since the beginning of the year.

The Governor's office issued a press release this afternoon that included this tidbit:

"Let there be no doubt about how seriously we take this security breach," Perry said. "Anyone who delivers or attempts to deliver cell phones or any other contraband to prisoners will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The vast majority of Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees are upstanding, hardworking citizens. It is a shame that the criminal acts of some overshadow the good name of others."

The governor directed the board to immediately lock down the entire prison system, search all inmates, staff and visitors and seize any contraband while issuing a statement of zero tolerance for anyone caught moving contraband within the prison. Any violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Oooh, a "zero tolerance" policy - now we know the smuggling will stop! (/sarcasm).

Other items like drugs or cigarettes can be smuggled through the mail but only guards and prison staff can get cell phones past metal detectors. To judge by this episode, even the state's worst murderers can benefit from corrupt guards' largess.

MORE: See the Austin Statesman's coverage. A followup story in the Chronicle says the inmate got the phone onto death row by bribing a guard for $2,100, though nobody has yet identified the culprit(s) bringing phones onto death row.

NUTHER UPDATE: During the search as part of the lockdown reacting to this news, two more cell phones were found on death row. The Statesman has more details about the lockdown and search.

RELATED: See these prior Grits posts -


Anonymous said...

Its about freakin time something happens that warrants another system wide search and lockdown but we all know this search is going to end up like all the other searches that these corrupt correctional officers conduct on a daily basis. But on another note, what about these little thugs that are locked up in TYC that will eventually all go into TDCJ. When TYC officials want to get tough on security and teaching these thugs a lesson, the public cries foul and why? Because these people think these kids do no wrong. That philosophy is wrong. I think TYC needs to go on this system wide lockdown as well. Put those lazy JCO’s to work. Contraband is coming into TYC as well. LOCK IT ALL DOWN! TDCJ AND TYC!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

And then what? A permanent lockdown is not sustainable. You have to have systems that prevent problems, a lockdown is at best a short term solution.

Anonymous said...

Texas should look at contraband interdiction from a completely different angle. Texas, proud to a fault (read: stubborn), should see what other states are doing and put together something that works. I think that TDCJ employees (ALL) should be searched DAILY. CO's should put on the uniform AT WORK in a locker room after being searched by a metal detector and/or other means. "Non-security" (read: not in gray) employees are also bringing in contraband items. This area should also be addressed. Surely Texas can come up with something better than we have now. How about some drug dogs at the front doors? They have dogs in Maryland that can smell CELLPHONES! We gotta clean up these prisons before we lose one. The day is approaching. Mark my words....

ps- it'll be interesting how many days these lockdowns last and how fast (read: sloppy) of a job these guys make of these "searches". most lockdown searches are a waste of taxpayer money. You can't have a clean area if you contaminate it with offenders moving about DURING the lockdown, makes the searching pointless.

pps - it would also help if you had a Director and Administration who actually knew how to run a prison. The director may be a great accountant and a Slick Rick "Yes" man, but a Dr. George Beto or W.J. Estelle he ain't....

Anonymous said...

spanky ~ lockdowns last 2-3 weeks at the larger prisons. How much longer would you like to see them last?

Its not just the act of smuggling the phones and sim cards in, its the length of time the inmates were able to keep them hidden that worries me. DR inmates have smaller cells than general population inmates, and it should not be that difficult to extract one at a time and do a thorough search.

TDCJ really needs to take it's head out of the sand and invest in cell phone signal scramblers.

Anonymous said...

It is incredible that our Governments are spending billions on snooping on millions of innocent people's mobile phone Communications Traffic Data, and sometimes intercepting the actual content of those the calls, but they have dismally failed to invest in the equipment which would prevent or rapidly detect and pin point the use of illegal mobile phones in prisons.

Some of these are smuggled in because the prison service provided monitored landline phones are so expensive, or so time limited, but many of these mobile phones are used to continue to direct or organise serious crimes - one of the main justifications for snooping on mobile phones in the first place.

N.B. crudely blocking or jamming mobile phone reception in prisons is not practical or desirable, due to its effect on blocking emergency services calls in the prison and the surrounding area.

See Spy Blog Thousands of Mobile Phones seized in UK Prisons - evidence of corruption ?

Anonymous said...

Like I commented on your post on Sheriff J.B. Smith's statement that the release of Smith County's jail plans would breach the security of the jail, this latest TDCJ incident makes my point about security facility.

Anonymous said...

Interesting topic that has been addressed by some TDCJ unit administrators for years. All of the suggestions fell on deaf ears. The comments being made by the powers that be indicate this is new information; in reality it is old news revisited. Just listen to some of the legislative hearings and read old newspaper articles.

An accountant as an Executive Director of TDCJ and a former game warden and legislator running a part of Prison Managed Health Care is indicative, in my opinion, of "What were they thinking ?".

Hiring and promotion/appointment practices that would put a Saturday Night Live skit to shame continue in TDCJ. Let's continue to pray for those who are trying to maintain with what they have.

Retired 2004

Anonymous said...

sunray-I'm not sure what unit you are referring to in particular but I have a loved one at a max unit and their last lockdown took ONE day. Tell me how lazy that is?!! This only came about because Senator Whitmire was called and for no other reason. They aren't going to find all the contraband because some of the officers doing the searches are the ones bringing it in. This is rocket science here people. TDCJ needs that new budget approved so they can get some quality people working for them instead of the 18 year olds straight out of high school who have NO BUSINESS in a Texas prison.

Anonymous said...

Moriarty said ... "Those inmates also face criminal charges..." who thinks it is a good idea to take someone from DR to a courtroom to prosecute them for the contraband? And what more are they going to do to them? I see the problem with the contraband, but let's come up with a logical solution ... prosecution sure isn't the answer

Anonymous said...

anon 8.32 ~ lockdowns can last any amount of time, it depends why they are initiated, but at Coffield they can last up to 3 weeks when they do their regular twice-yearly shakedowns.

Anonymous said...

Lockdowns and searches are always productive for the short term in this business, but who is planning for long term improvements. Since the early 90's we have been losing 400-500 Correctional employees each month in the Texas prison system. A significant investment has yet to be made which would help the administration stabilize this organization. Over ninety percent of all Law Enforcement agencies and many Correctional organizations utilize psychological screening instruments and polygraphs in addition to criminal backgrounds and drug tests to ensure we are hiring only the most qualified and suitable employees in the field. It is not a lack of willingness on the part of the Executive Administration, it is rather a lack of ability. If an investment is not made in the organization to ensure that it is able to be competitive in the job market, then it should come as no surprise to find out that corrupt employees are smuggling narcotics and cell phones into our prisons. It is hard to believe that OIG has over 700 active cases for cell phones in Texas prisons which are currently being investigated. These are the ones we know about.
Searches will not give us our crediblity and restore our public image as professionals in the future. This can only be achieved through professionalization and labor quality. The staff of the Texas prison system deserve nothing less.

Anonymous said...

I'm on death row. I've got a cell phone. Prosecute me.


Anonymous said...


Ditto the comments for TYC

Unknown said...

I worked in the prisons for five years as a teacher. All of these offenders need to be locked down 23 hours a day. If that doesn't rehab.them then lock them up again. I tried helping these people and got nothing but grief. Put them in tents. And use our tax dollars for something besides the toilet.

Anonymous said...

The time has come for TDCJ job applicants to pass a lifestyle polygraph examination as a condition of employment---

Anonymous said...

Make the guards pass lie detector tests before they are hired