Sunday, November 23, 2008

Has TDCJ learned the right lessons from death row cell phone scandal?

An article by Mike Ward in the Austin Statesman today ("Cell phones hard to find on death row," Nov. 23) makes me fear Texas prison administrators haven't learned the right lessons from the recent rash of contraband discoveries (particularly cell phones) on death row:
"A year ago, we were amazed to find an inmate with both a cell phone and a charger up there," John Moriarty, the state prison system's inspector general, said Thursday. "They have 24/7 to think of ways to hide cell phones so we can't find them. This is our biggest, most complex challenge right now: tracking these phones down." ...

In all, a total of 18 smuggled cell phones were found on death row in just 30 days — five since a massive lockdown and shakedown of all prisons was completed last week.
I'm surprised to see the inspector general say this wasn't a big problem a year ago when TDCJ discovered 484 cell phones during FY 2007 - fewer than this year (743 through Oct. 20), but still a sizable number.

TDCJ administrators quoted in Ward's article focused mostly on how easy it is for inmates to hide items, and indeed, inmates are notoriously clever at concealing contraband. But that observation ignores a much more important fact when we're talking about death row: Only prison staff can bring contraband there in the first place, no matter how ably prisoners hide it. Death rown inmates never have face to face contact visits and could only, possibly receive contraband from staff. "People are asking, 'How could they miss those all those phones when they did a search?' Moriarty said," but that ignores the bigger question staring the inspector general in the face: How did the phones get on death row in the first place?

Regular readers know TDCJ's system-wide lockdown began when death row inmate Richard Tabler called Sen. John Whitmire's office, setting off a firestorm of media criticism and searches at every TDCJ facility. Cell phones were discovered at 22 units (out of around 112), and 46 officers were caught bringing cell phones into various units when pat downs were implemented, the Inspector General testified recently to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee (which Whitmire chairs). But so far, only Tabler and two of his family members are facing charges despite so many staff directly implicated in smuggling in the contraband, Ward reports.

Two questions loom as the agency moves forward: Will we see prosecutions of staff who smuggle cell phones in addition to inmates and family members paying for their minutes? Relatedly, will TDCJ take steps to reduce staff corruption besides a proposed 20% pay hike for staff, and what will such efforts look like?


FleaStiff said...

Its an annoyance because it reminds us that even those on death row lead cushy lives and that much of the smuggling in prisons is by staffers, but it hardly qualifies as a scandal!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Fleastiff, the newspaper editors putting this on their front pages disagree with you that it's no big deal.

Also, to correct a misimpression you've promoted on other comment strings, staff are responsible for ALL of the smuggling on death row, not "much" of it. There are no contact visits for death row inmates - ONLY staff could get cell phones to death row inmates.

Anonymous said...

Many of these facilities are significantly understaffed. The daily staffing requirements primarily consist of 'fixed' positions, not flexible positions which can be left unmanned (or 'collapsed')if staffing is unavailable. Some units are still working at 65-70% staffing levels. When it becomes that difficult to fill those vacancies, the less desirable, less capable candidates seep in and saturate the rosters. And from this pool of candidates comes the entry-level supervisors and the choice is often nothing more than selecting the 'least undesirable' candidate, not having a 'best' candidate to choose from.
The merits of a payraise in combatting this problem have been debated often in recent weeks. No, money cannot buy character, and a payraise is not an overnight solution. But a significant raise will at least allow the agency to select from a broader field of candidates, and less hesitant to screen out or remove the undesirables from it's midst.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Henson (and the rest of your readers),

Death Row offenders do not get contact visits. You are correct. "Guards" or Correctional Officers are not the only persons who have access to the Death Row offenders. There are NUMEROUS other persons who enter the Death Row building on a DAILY basis. There are clerks, nurses/medical staff, psychological staff, maintenance staff, commissary staff and OTHER INMATES! Who do you think washes the dishes, makes the food trays, mops/sweeps and cleans up messes? They perform a variety of other tasks, some supervised by correctional staff and some not. Maintenance and commissary staff escort/supervise their own offenders. There are NUMEROUS opportunities for cell phones and other types of contraband to be introduced into the facility. No doubt, there are some dirty, corrupt officers there, but not all and probably not many. There are causes and solutions to this problem but the root of the problem does not fall directly at the correctional officers feet.


Anonymous said...

FleaStiff...NO prisoners in TDCJ lead a cushy life.

Spanky...quite obviously there would be other employees who enter DR on a daily basis. Are they searched upon entry? If so, the cell phones would be found before they reached the hands of a DR inmate. Now, if the prisoners are indeed managing the prisoners we have even a larger problem. Nonetheless, if by chance another prisoner was able to slip a cell phone to a DR inmate, how did they get the cell phone in the first place? If it came in through visitation then the visitors weren't checked upon entry and the inmate wasn't properly strip searched upon exiting visitation. Bottom line, the correctional officers must do their job or the cell phones get in. Note: Tabers mother admittedly paid a CO to take the phone in. Can't blame that one on anyone else but a CO. Interestingly enough, I haven't seen the name of that CO in print so the entire state can see who the person was that supplied the phone that logged all the calls and was used to contact Whitmire. Why is that? is a scandal and I appreciate that you continue to follow it.

Anonymous said...

My question is...........who is doing the searching during lockdown?

If the search for contraband is done by the same folks that are bringing in the cell can anyone be surprised that they are "hard to find"?

Anonymous said...

There is another dynamic to the contraband issue that, to my knowledge, hasn't been discussed publicly.
Over the past several years TDCJ has moved many hundreds of inmates from facilities all over the state to facilities that are closer to their family members. The pressure to do this has come from inmate advocacy groups AND elected officials. Two of the most prolific elected officials involved in this are Representative Hodge and to a lesser degree Senator Whitmire.
While on the surface it may appear to make sense to help the inmates maintain family ties, an unintended consequence of this is that you now have the situation where the inmates and the staff are from the same area.
Familiarity in the correctional setting is not necessarily a good thing. It is much easier to coerce a staff member into doing something when the inmate can tell them "I know where your Mom, Wife, Children, etc. live". It is also much easier for the family members/friends of the inmate to deliver the contraband to the staff member and pay them for delivery.

Anonymous said...

F. G. - The benefits of having regular visits from family and friends far outweighs any contraband issue.

TDCJ should be able to keep contraband out of the prisons - period.

The only real solution to the issue you raise is to send everyone to Guantanamo!

Anonymous said...

If find that those who speak out in favour of limiting even further anything that might even indirectly benefit inmates, such as being closer to family so that the family can visit more, are the ones who truely believe that being locked away in a TDCJ prison will never happen to them or thier loved ones.
Unfortunately, it often doesnt work out that way, and only then do they realise that we're not asking for anything more than fair treatment for ALL - inmates, families and COs.

Fleastiff, when was the last time you were in a TDCJ prison, on either side of the visit table?

FleaStiff said...

Such "news" stories are often prompted by some lobbyist or PR firm. Can anyone track back and see what really prompted this flurry of news items?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Fleastiff, the recent media attention began when a death row inmate called an Austin Statesman reporter and a state senator using an illegal cell phone from death row. It has nothing to do with lobbyists or PR, and I can't imagine what special interest you think benefits from exposing this stuff.

Anonymous said...

New policy: Anyone found with a cell phone will be shot "trying to escape."

Problem solved.

SSDD said...

Spanky is right. And we all know who is responsible and how it came to be that way. So for all of those who dont know the goings-on and daily routine in, out, and around 12 building..."GET OFF THE BULL--IT!" Polunsky is taking the hit right now, but which unit was in the spotlight before it? And who is next? And why? A good friend of mine says,"THIS IS YOUR PRISON...GO TAKE IT BACK!". that is something that needs to be done.

Anonymous said...

When will TDCJ face the real issues? They punish and shame their inmates AND their staff. TDCJ has not come into the 21st Century with massive education and rehabilitation programs. Most people who are sent to prison arrive without an ethical or moral code to live by. Staff and inmates alike need Cognitive Intervention, Anger Management, and a course in Moral Responsibility. All need to be treated with honor and respect as soon as they enter the gates.

The present “plantation mentality” will never win loyalty from staff or from the inmates who regret their crimes and want to develop self respect and the opportunity to receive it.

Prison management must model behavior in harmony with social standards that expect honesty and individual self control. Staff and prisoners should have a voice in the management of each unit -- councils to advise the warden of what is going on and how to fix the problems.
You can’t have loyalty while treating your people like scum.

Until the citizens of Texas are ready to turn prisons into institutions of learning rather than revenge, we will continue to have dishonest and disloyal staff, and thousands of angry, resentful, and uncooperative prisoners. We learn by imitation.

Anonymous said...

Why wasn't there this much scandal when CO's are stabbed to death? Where is the hue and cry for a person losing their life? All that's really happened here to trigger the outrage was that Whitmire got a scary phone call. ooooo

Anonymous said...

One problem is that the military has sucked up a huge number of people that have a natural inclination for "correctional" work and they aren't letting them go.

Also, the gangs have infiltrated the staff. Not just with bribes, but by placing "clean" members as COs on every unit (al la Mexico).

Anonymous said...


I'm surprised you are using the collective wisdom of "newspaper editors" as evidence of anything, much less what constitutes a big deal.

I suspect the real damage from cell phones is communicating prison routines and various schedules to outsiders. With that information, it would be very easy for outsiders to get any contraband into a prison without CO involvement. It's not hard to image.

For instance, there are 4 commissary 18 wheelers driven by inmates that stop at a stop sign 3 miles from here every weekday around 3-4 pm. Some duct tape or magnets...

A small diversion and a good slingshot could send a cell phone into the yard of many older prisons.

anyway, something to think about.

Anonymous said...

anon @ 7.28 ~ again, that could account for a large amount of contraband in general population, but not on Death Row.

It really amazes me how little Texas appear to know about their own corrctional facilities, considering how many of their neighbours they send there.

Oh and FleaSiff, dont you have any answers?

Anonymous said...

TDCJ is over 3,000 officers short, not counting officers out on medical and FMLA leave. Some prison units are only 60-70% staffed. TDCJ is so understaffed they will hire just about anyone and I mean ANYONE.

With the pay structure of Texas correctional officers so low there is not a large pool of candidates to choose from. Thorough backgrounds checks of applicants can not be done.

Standards can not be increased, until pay is increased. The direction The State of Texas is heading might lead to costly Federal oversight, as it did in the 80's and 90's with the Ruiz case.

Anonymous said...

Truly the Texas public is retarded. I would sooner have 10,000 inmates in possession of a cell phone rather than one con in possession of a knife or other weapon. Put the emphasis where it needs to be. These guys aren't going to call anyone who will complain to the police about the call they received--this will get their phone confiscated--so lighten up folks. As long as weapons are kept out I am happy--the phones are a minor issue. As for cons leading a "cushy life", well, my brother has had six teeth pulled because TDCJ says they don't want to give cons medical treatment that is better than what the average Texan gets. So this makes me wonder whether the Texas health care system is on a par with countries such as, say, Zimbabwe. This must be why Texas and Mexico are neighbors---they deserve each other..........

Anonymous said...

TDCJ guards must pass a very very comprehensive lie detector test before they work inside a prison. If the Mexican mafias can bribe Federal border patrol agents to wave cars through just think of how many TDCJ guards are on their payrolls. TDCJ needs to quickly set up a lie detector test for it's guard force as well as top leadership. Cell phones today mean guns tomorrow.