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Texas Prisoner Gets 40 Years For Cellphone; Guards Get Probation

In April 2006 a Texas prisoner was sentenced to 40 years in prison for possessing a contraband cell phone--8 years more than the 32-year sentence he was already serving for auto theft.

The sentence, the longest anyone has received since the Texas legislature made possession of a cell phone in prison a third degree felony, is extreme. Prosecutors in Brazoria County never alleged that Manor, 41, used the cell phone to carry out illegal activity or circumvent prison security. Rather, the evidence shows only that he used it to call his sister. "I was so surprised just to hear my brother's voice", said Shirley Manor, a contract worker for the Texas Department of Health. "He just asked us how we were doing". Before the call, said Ms. Manor, she hadnt seen or heard from her brother in years.

Lawmakers in most states worry about contraband cell phones because the calls cant be monitored. This allows prisoners to maintain gang ties on the outside or to conduct criminal activity, they say. In Texas, however, this is not the case. Prisoners in the Lone Star State have no access to pay phones, and, in most cases, are imprisoned much too far from home for regular visits.

Drugs take you out of the prison psychologically, said David P. ONeil, a defense attorney in Huntsville and former head of the prison system's public defenders office. Phones place you outside the prison in a different sense. There is a premium on escaping in that sense.

Phil Hall, who prosecuted the case, was elated with the long sentence. "We are trying to remove him from society. He doesnt deserve to have a cell phone", said Hall. The jury really bought into the argument. Prosecutors initially offered Manor a 20-year plea deal. He opted for trial instead, hoping for a more reasonable sentence.

Manor had been caught with the cell phone after it dropped from his bunk at the Darrington Unit near Houston. Darrington, along with another South Texas prison, the Connally Unit, have experienced the most problems with contraband cell phones. Large caches of drugs and tobacco are also routinely found at Darrington, prompting officials to label it a hotbed of corruption.

In 2005, Texas prison officials seized 135 cell phones. In just the first 4 months of 2006 they seized another 90. Most of the cell phones--if not all of them--are brought in by prison workers, according to investigators and prosecutors. In one case, a Brazoria County guard was arrested during a sting operation after she agreed to smuggle a cell phone and heroin into the Darrington prison for $250.

With prisoners receiving such harsh sentences for merely possessing a cell phone, it would stand to reason that guards are also receiving stiff prison terms for providing them. After all, theyre the very ones responsible for the prison security--and ultimately the public safety--that prosecutors say is so threatened by the phones. But incredibly, this is not the case. As of April 2006, not one guard had been sentenced to prison for smuggling in a cell phone. If they receive anything, its probation.

Herb Hancock, a special prosecutor in South Texas, said it is more difficult to prosecute guards because of who the witnesses are. "If you want to watch a room go cold, come watch a voir dire when I mention inmate witnesses", he said. "Theyre like, Is this all youve got?"

Meanwhile, there are no such hurdles to prosecuting prisoners. After Manor was sentenced to 40 years--meaning he could very well spend the rest of his life in prison--another Darrington prisoner accepted a plea agreement of 25 years. [See PLN, May 2005, p. 24 for more on contraband cellphones in Texas, the U.S., and throughout the world.]

Sources: Dallas Morning News, Associated Press

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