Lawmakers grill Texas prison officials after 3 cellphones are found on death row

AUSTIN – Poor surveillance, inadequate staffing and under-paid, easily-corrupted corrections guards have allowed Texas prison inmates to easily obtain phones and other contraband, criminal justice officials acknowledged Tuesday, the day after three cell phones were recovered from death row.

One of these phones logged 2,800 calls over the last month, and was used by a convicted murderer to make threatening calls to Sen. John Whitmire, who said he was “disgusted” with top prison officials at an emergency hearing on Tuesday.

“We’re talking about life and death, about a death row inmate calling me and talking about my daughters,” Mr. Whitmire said. “I’m really disgusted with our prison officials because this is not a secret. Contraband is rampant… It is more secure at the Harris County Courthouse, in Houston traffic court, than it is” on death row.

Texas’ 156,000 inmates remained on lockdown on Tuesday, following Monday’s revelation that a guard had accepted a bribe to get death row murderer Richard Tabler a cell phone. Mr. Tabler and at least nine other death row inmates, most of them affiliated with violent gangs, made more than 2,800 calls over 30 days. The calls to Mr. Whitmire referenced the names of his daughters, their ages, and where they live in Houston.

At a Tuesday criminal justice hearing, criminal justice officials and wardens from Texas’ death row testified that their metal detectors were inadequate – only 22 of the state’s 112 units have them. They said they were understaffed. And they said their guards are so poorly compensated that they can be bought with bribes to bring in contraband – everything from cell phones to tobacco and narcotics. Mr. Tabler allegedly paid more than $2,000 to get his cell phone.

“We do everything we’re empowered to do,” said Billy Hirsch, death row’s assistant warden. “The same staff bringing the phone in might be allowing offenders to take it back and forth. If we paid them enough money, they might not be liable to take that bribe.”

But they said they think the best solution would be to utilize cell signal blocking technology, which requires federal approval.

Mr. Whitmire promised immediate action, from pat downs to drug dogs to rewards and better surveillance. Long term, he said, staffing improvements are a necessity.

But he expressed outrage on Tuesday that prison officials, who were aware of the problem, didn’t act before the problem got out of hand. And he demanded answers for why they hadn’t yet asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to use cell signal blockers – or why they didn’t just do it and face the consequences later.

“No person should have to go through the experience I have over the last two weeks, repeatedly talking to a death row inmate,” said Mr. Whitmire, D-Houston. “The impact goes on and on. This kind of activity is a danger to crime victims, to prosecutors, to judges. It’s just intolerable.”



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