Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Senate committee examines reasons for contraband smuggling

An emergency meeting of the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee today focused on how contraband gets into Texas prisons. Not many solutions were identified but the hearing underlined the scope of the problem.

The most common disciplinary action against prisoners in TDCJ is for possessing contraband, said Sen. John Whitmire. Literally thousands of years are added onto prisoners' sentences annually, said Sen. Whitmire, because they were found with contraband. A whopping 52% of disciplinary actions are for contraband, said the senator, according to data compiled by his staff.

After describing the details of his recent phone interaction with a death row inmate, Sen. Whitmire said that contraband smuggling "shall end today," but that seems like wishful thinking.

Inspector General John Moriarty told the committee the warden and staff were"instrumental" in resolving the situation, but you'd have to also say they were "instrumental" in allowing the situation in the first place. The OIG discovered more than 700 cases of confiscated cell phones in 2008 so far, he said, including 19 on death row this year. Cell phone smuggling is a particular problem, he said, because the lack of an inmate telephone system. (Texas is currently installing legal phones in all units, but they're not online yet.)

Asked how do cell phones get in, Moriarty said it "usually involves an employee." Narcotics and tobacco are also commonly smuggled items. There have been cases in the past, he said, of gang members who used illegal cell phones to operate criminal activities on the outside.

The OIG received 35 new investigators in its budget last session but still is not up to staffing levels from 2003 when the state endured massive budget cuts. Previously every unit had at least one assigned investigator and the largest ones had up to four investigators, but today there's not even one per unit.

Moriarty suggested that the key to eliminating cell phones would be to simply jam those frequencies, but TDCJ would need approval from the Federal Communications Commission to do that. (Of course, that would also eliminate personal cell phones for prison staff, contractors, etc., which would bring its own array of problems. Whitmire wanted that done immediately.)

Sen. Hinojosa asked if we've "lost control" over some of the prison units, but Moriarty said he didn't believe so. Certainly they can't control contraband, though - surely that's clear.

The warden in charge of death row and two of his staffers said they have no good answer for why so many cell phones wound up on death row. They all agreed the main problem is inmates bribing guards. Prisoners on death row don't come and go so the only possible source for contraband would be correction officers.

At the Polunsky unit, guards come in through the front gate and go through a metal detector, the warden said. Whitmire asked if that means the person running the metal detector is corrupt, but received mostly stammers in reply. The warden said they don't have authority to do "pat downs" without probable cause.

The committee was later told by TDCJ brass that only 22 out of 112 units had metal detectors at the front door. However the discussion of what's going on at the Polunsky unit tells us metal detectors won't fully solve the problem.

Sen. Whitmire asked how inmates on death row could pass a cell phone back and forth and received similarly unsatisfactory answers. A major from the unit told the committee inmates can tranfer paper by "fishing" them from cell to cell using string to slide it under the door, but it's unclear how that would really work with a phone. Once again, the unstated implication was that guards must be helping pass the phones around.

Whitmire was unhappy to learn that most employees caught smuggling contraband are fired instead of prosecuted, and the warden agreed that would help. However Moriarty told the senator that juries typically won't vote to convict prison employees and tend to sympathize with defendants who work in prisons. He didn't think prosecution alone would solve the problem and suggested the biggest help might be getting the new inmate phone system online.

UPDATE: Here's a link to the archived broadcast of the committee hearing.


Anonymous said...

Sen. Whitmire had a scare, that is no reason to go overboard. Prisoners have and always will find some way to get contraband into the system. There are to many inmates and not enough guards. The guards are overworked and under paid. IMO, I don't believe Sen. Whitmire has a clue as to how the system works.

Anonymous said...

If a living wage were paid the temptation to be bribed would not be there. Also this would intice a better selection of candidates to become Correctional Officers. Could it be Mr. Whitmire has not heard this before? Now that he feels what those Officers feel daily about threats to thier families, he will respect the good ones for hanging in there when the Gov. calls them trained monkeys. Yes there are people who will do unetical and illegial things no matter how well they are paid,however there are people who actually enjoy thier career choice and do the right thing just because it is right. I hate to say it but I am glad someone did an internet search for the inmate and gave him information enough to frighten Mr. whitmire out of his liberal thug hugger atitude. Now maybe he will actually work for the Officers and try to make prison into prison not a vation fot the inmates. Protection of the public is the first order of a prison.

Anonymous said...

I have not listened to anything that was brought up that has not been brought up YEARS earlier! The problem is staff shortages; incompetent staff; piss poor designed facilties; and last but certainly not least - failure on the huntsville and Austin Administration on making those tough decisions rather than deciding to go along to get along.

I laughed aloud listening to the committee comparing the Harris County Courthouse security to a prison. It is a shame those committee members didn't count the number of deputies that were staffing all those positions.

TDCJ cannot provide ADEQUATE staffing to provide minimum security in the cellblocks due to the upper administration cutting staffing positions thru the years.

Do you think the Wardens and the Major were not instructed on what they could and could not state?

I am now listening to Mr Bell discussing lockdowns (I'm glad he didn't refer to this as "system-wide searches"). Can you imagine really searching a unit? Do you have any idea how long it takes to do a real search (how many days)? If a unit were fully staffed AND received additional off unit staff it would take at least five full days! How many units completed this task in 48 hours or less?

It is a real shame that Brad Livingston was ill today and couldn't attend. I need to get off my soap box and let someone else vacillate.

Retired 2004

Anonymous said...

How long has John Whitmire been the Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee ?

Just as with the TYC debacle, Whitmire is intent on carrying out a witch hunt to above all else, shield himself from any criticism. Never seen a better grandstander. Doesn't the Senator Chair the committee charged with oversight of TDC. Evidently, a quick study he is not.

For Whitmire to sit on his pompous ass and tell a TDC Warden not to bother with the chain of command, just to come directly to him (Whitmire) with his (the Warden's) problems and concerns demonstrates just how out to lunch he, Whitmire, is. Wardens don't get to be Wardens by circumventing the chain of command and doing hit-and-runs on their superiors. There will more likely be snow drifts on the Capitol lawn tomorrow than a TDC Warden breaking rank and running to the Senator with the dirt.

The Senator appeared to strain to gain any grasp of the culture that is TDC. How long has he been the Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee ?

TDC has many great and honorable employees, dedicated folks who do a good job of keeping the convicts inside the fences. But the agency is mired in a bottom-line philosophy that will never serve it well. The Exececutive Director is a money man and should have stayed in that end of the business. He doesn't know diddly about running a prison or parole or probation.

TDCJ is the most archaic of all state agencies. It is the only state agency I'm aware of that offers staff no merit pay increases. Staff work in poor surroundings, work with antiquated equipment (example: 10 year old computers), travel in 10 year old vehicles that aren't safe, and try to follow misguided policies and procedures. But the Senator is obviously oblivious to any of this. How long has he been the Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee ?

As the hearing bore out today, purchasing anything in TDC is a nightmare. No wonder employees steal from each other and cannibalize vehicles and equipment. (Thanks VitaPro.)

Personnel actions are even more a bad dream and it leaves one to wonder if the only way TDC balances it's budget is leaving positions vacant.

It is regrettable that Senator Whitmire experienced the situation that he did and I can't imagine the horror. Would've scared anyone receiving a call from a death row inmate who had knowledge of his family. But while the Senator got a few scary phone calls, lots of folks, employees and convicts alike, suffer every day from the dysfunctional agency that is TDC. Guess it just depends on whose ox is getting gored.

So Senator, how long have you been the Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee ?

Anonymous said...

Asked how do cell phones get in, Moriarty said it "usually involves an employee." Narcotics and tobacco are also commonly smuggled items. There have been cases in the past, he said, of gang members who used illegal cell phones to operate criminal activities on the outside.

There's no question that cell phones in prison pose many problems, not least of which are internal security and the potential for enabling all manner of criminal activity. BUT, can anyone point to any prosecutions where it was proven that the phones were used to operate criminal activities outside? Out of all the cell phone prosecutions, how many have turned up evidence of this? Surely someone has statistics -- OIG, TDCJ, SPU?

Anonymous said...

Hell, if they can't find a cell phone in the cell block, I wouldn't hold my breath for them to provide statistics on same.

Anonymous said...

Cell phone jammers? I wish the committee would do its job instead of posturing each time the shit hits the fan.

Senator Whitmire,
Get the facilities staffed. Pay guards adequately. Implement better oversight mechanisms. And stop passing criminal enhancements that make your actual job more difficult. Your job is to pass good legislation that will keep Texans safe, not to cow to the angry and passionate pleas of your fellow Member's constituents when their cars are broken into.

Anonymous said...

Why is it that TDCJ guards do not have to pass a national level type lifestyle polygraph exam before they are hired? Clearly this is an idea whose time has come.