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Cell Phones in Prison: The Latest Wrinkle



The issue of cellphones in prison has generated many opinions from criminologists, former inmates, correctional officers, and from individuals who are interested in our penal systems. Prisonpath reported the different opinions in “Cell Phones in Prison – Common Consensus.” Fascinatingly, many opponents were former inmates. Former inmates knew that certain inmates would use cell phones for criminal purposes and not to communicate with families. The following article reported that cell phones in Texas prisons were used to arrange drug deals, make threats, and order murders. The cell phones were smuggled into the prisons by correctional officers for bribes ranging from $500 – $1400. The Texas prisons are installing new electronic equipment that will disable cell phone calls. Tests of the gear have already had successful results in locating the illegal cell phones. Prisonpath will follow this new wrinkle in the cell phones war.

By Mike Ward of the American-Statesman Staff

More than four years after an influential state senator got a call from a death-row murderer using a smuggled cellphone, new gear that will electronically disable such calls will be powered up next week inside two Texas prisons notorious for contraband.

One of the prisons that will get the new equipment is a South Texas lockup where federal authorities recently busted two gangs for using smuggled phones to order murders, home invasions and drug trafficking.

Prison officials confirmed Friday that even as the state’s first new “managed access” equipment has been tested at two prisons, convicts with contraband phones have begun trying to figure ways around it — and that several have been caught with illegal cellphones after the new gear was used to track down where the calls were coming from.

“This is a huge step forward for public safety,” said Bruce Toney, inspector general for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice whose office is responsible for policing contraband and prison crimes. “What inmates are learning, as they’ve tried to figure ways around the system, is that they can’t get around it.”

Even so, as the new equipment was being installed and tested in dorms at the Stiles Unit outside Beaumont in recent weeks, investigators said convicts began making calls on smuggled phones asking friends and relatives to search the Internet to help them figure a way around the call blocking.

“They couldn’t beat it,” Toney said.

As a result, convicts at the two prisons have begun dumping cellphones that can no longer make calls, according to other prison officials.

For years, confiscations of smuggled cellphones and other contraband have been highest at the 2,800-convict Stiles Unit and the 2,700-inmate McConnell Unit near Beeville in South Texas — the reason they were selected for the first use in Texas of the cell-blocking equipment. In 2011 alone, 148 cellphones were confiscated at Stiles and 88 were found at McConnell.

Last year, more than 700 cellphones were confiscated in Texas’ 111 state prisons — an average of six phones per prison, officials said.

Prison officials said the new system won’t jam cellphone calls in and around prisons, but it instead will intercept all incoming and outgoing calls, and then only those to and from numbers that have been pre-approved will be allowed to go through; the rest will go to a dead end.

The new system, much like one used successfully in California prisons, is being installed at no cost to taxpayers, officials said. A private firm that operates the pay phones in state prisons was said to be covering the approximately $1 million-per-prison cost.

“It’s about time,” said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston.

As a result of calls to Whitmire and this reporter in October 2008, death-row convict Richard Tabler was busted and the entire prison system was locked down while officials did a cell-by-cell search for smuggled phones and other contraband. Hundreds of phones were found, including several dozen on death row.

Upset that his mother and sister were arrested on charges related to the case, Tabler then threatened to kill Whitmire and this reporter. Two years later, Tabler apologized, saying he had found the Lord.

Tabler remains on death row awaiting execution for the 2004 shooting deaths of a Killeen nightclub owner and the owner’s friend.

Whitmire said the call-blocking gear should be installed at other prisons, even though officials have said they have no such plans at present. “I was at Stiles a few weeks ago, and the wardens said the new system blocks calls very effectively,” he said.

“There’s no doubt this will improve public safety, because we know that cellphones in a prison environment are dangerous — because inmates use them to commit crimes, both inside prison and on the street,” Whitmire said, noting a recent federal indictment in Corpus Christi of 32 people — including 13 former prison guards — for racketeering, drug trafficking, bribery and other crimes.

Authorities alleged that members of two prison gangs — Raza Unida and the Aryan Brotherhood — ran a criminal enterprise out of the McConnell Unit using smuggled cellphones and by paying guards bribes of $500, $800 and $1,400 to smuggle in phones, illegal drugs and tobacco.

An Austin woman, Lakeisha Jeanette Reid, 25, was among the former correctional officers charged in the case, according to an indictment.

Using smuggled cellphones, convicts used go-betweens to pay bribes to guards “creating a culture of corruption which perverted the intended purpose of TDCJ,” the indictment states.

“This new equipment attacks the communication between gang members inside the system with people both outside the system and offenders at other units,” Toney said. “That’s what makes it such a huge benefit.”

Cell phones in prisons– another aspect of what prison is like. In the outside world, cell phones are part of ordinary life, but cell phones in prison?

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