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Entire Texas Prison System Locked Down to Search for Phones; Prison Cell Phone Problem is Pandemic

by Matt Clarke

On October 20, 2008, Texas Governor Rick Perry placed all 112 prisons and 155,000 prisoners in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) on lockdown to search for cell phones after a state senator received calls from a death row prisoner.

Richard Lee Tabler, 29, who is awaiting execution, used a cell phone to call state Senator John Whitmire, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, on October 7, 2008 to ask for his help in obtaining a pro bono attorney and special visits for his mother and grandmother.

Tabler’s mother, Lorraine, was arrested at an airport when she arrived from Georgia after Sen. Whitmire told her he had arranged a visit with her son. Detectives are in possession of a videotape from a Wal-Mart in Waycross, Georgia that shows her purchasing minutes for the cell phone that Richard used. Over forty calls made from death row were to her home number.

Tabler’s mother and sister, Kristina Martinez, who surrendered to authorities in Temple, Texas on October 22, 2008, were named in felony warrants for providing a prohibited item to a prisoner. They face up to two years in state jail.

Tabler had also called Austin American-Statesman reporter Mike Ward, complaining about conditions on death row. Displaying a questionable understanding of journalistic ethics in regard to protecting his sources, Ward cooperated with authorities and arranged a specific time for Tabler to call him. Tabler’s cell was raided during the call. Tabler’s last words on the phone, as guards entered his cell, were threats to find out what kind of car Ward was driving.

Previous searches of Tabler’s cell had failed to turn up a phone. He told Sen. Whitmire that he avoided discovery of the phone and charger by handing them off to a guard during shakedowns.

Whitmire initially refused to believe that the person contacting him was really a death row prisoner, thinking the calls were a hoax by an anti-death penalty group with an office in Livingston, Texas. His attitude changed when Tabler casually mentioned the names and addresses of Whitmire’s two daughters, as a not-so-subtle form of intimidation.

Tabler also had a scheme in which he allowed nine other prisoners to use the cell phone in exchange for having money sent to his relatives. They placed over 2,800 calls in one month. Tabler told Whitmire he had paid a guard $2,100 to smuggle the cell phone into death row. That disclosure resulted in prison authorities searching death row at the Polunsky Unit before the TDCJ’s system-wide lockdown. Two more phones and chargers were discovered.

However, TDCJ officials said they have been unable to verify whether prison staff gave the cell phone to Tabler. “In the cases we are investigating on death row there has been no evidence to indicate that an employee is involved,” stated TDCJ Inspector General John Moriarty. Of course, that begs the question of how phones made it to death row absent staff involvement.

The TDCJ blamed prisoners and their outside supporters, who allegedly operate contraband smuggling rings that use code words, fake names, money transfers and drop sites. “It’s a convoluted, complicated network that’s very difficult to trace. And it’s going to be very difficult to shut off, because as soon as we bust someone, another person will step in and start it all over again,” Moriarty said.

Prior to the lockdown, almost 700 cell phones and related components (usually chargers or SIM cards) had been seized throughout the TDCJ in 2008, including 22 on death row, up from around 580 confiscated in Texas prisons in 2007. When the system-wide TDCJ lockdown was lifted in mid-November 2008, approximately 140 additional cell phones, 100 chargers and 200 weapons had been found by prison staff, including more than a dozen phones on death row.

The Stiles Unit in Beaumont is the TDCJ prison with the worst cell phone problem. In 2008, 180 phones were discovered at the facility prior to the lockdown. This included 60 cell phones found in a compressor delivered to the prison. On the second full day of the lockdown, two guards were caught leaving Stiles with cell phone chargers. That led to TDCJ implementing a system-wide policy of pat and metal detector searches of all prison employees as they left work for the duration of the lockdown.

Texas has the only prison system in the nation that does not allow prisoners regular access to telephones so they can call their families. Although the state has signed a contract to have phones installed at all TDCJ facilities, the installation is not expected to be complete until April 2009. [See: PLN, Feb. 2009, p. 27].

Texas prison officials hope that regular access to telephones will reduce the demand for illicit cell phone smuggling. However, in the California DOC, where prisoners have access to pay phones, 1,331 cell phones were confiscated in the first six months of 2008 alone.

Meanwhile, Texas Board of Criminal Justice Chairman Oliver Bell released a memo detailing new measures to be taken by the TDCJ to reduce cell phone smuggling. The measures include pat searches of employees, vendors and visitors upon reasonable suspicion, and a zero-tolerance policy for contraband in which all cases of possession of alcohol, tobacco, drugs or cell phones will be referred for criminal prosecution.

Previously, employees caught with such contraband were transferred to another prison or allowed to resign, which allowed them to be re-hired by TDCJ after six months. Also, staff members who had been permitted to bring large containers of food to work were now restricted in the amount of food and the size of the containers.

Senator Whitmire has sworn to address what he calls TDCJ’s culture of tolerating contraband. He is pushing for policy changes, such as routine pat-down searches of guards and visitors entering the prisons, and possibly jamming cell phones. He admitted that the problem of corruption among TDCJ guards was exacerbated by the fact that they are underpaid and overworked.

During an emergency meeting of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Oct. 21, 2008, Whitmire sharply criticized top prison administrators. “We’ve got a serious problem. I’m angry nothing has been done up to this point to stop the contraband you all knew was there,” he fumed. “If your job depended on keeping cell phones off death row, and I think that’s an accurate statement, why can’t you stop it?” he asked TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston.

Predictably, prison officials requested more money to address the cell phone problem – almost $66 million for increased surveillance cameras and security measures, which was more than double the TDCJ’s initial request in August 2008 before the death row cell phone scandal made headlines. “The games are over. We’ve just given everyone 66 million reasons about why we’re very serious about this,” said Chairman Bell.

In fact, cell phones present a dilemma in prisons and jails across the nation. “It is a major problem throughout the country,” acknowledged George Camp, co-director of the Association of State Correctional Administrators. “Unquestionably we are seeing more of it.”

Maryland prisons have seen a rise in smuggled cell phones, with 849 being confiscated in 2008 – a 76% increase over the previous year. Statewide, over 600 cell phones were found in Tennessee prisons in 2008, including at the state’s Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.

As a result, lawmakers are cracking down. Oklahoma made possession of a cell phone in prison a misdemeanor last year, while under a law enacted in October 2008, possessing a phone in the Florida DOC is a felony offense.

Phone smuggling techniques that do not involve corrupt prison employees have become more innovative. In one case, cell phones and other contraband were shot over a prison’s perimeter fence using a makeshift launcher. Once inside, the phones are hard to detect as they contain little metal and are small enough to hide in obscure areas – including body cavities.
“As long as you have human beings in prisons as inmates and employees, and as long as there are human beings on the outside of those prisons, you’re going to have contraband in prison,” observed South Carolina DOC Director Jon Ozmint.

Oklahoma and South Carolina – and most recently Texas – are among the states that have sought FCC approval to jam cell phone signals in prisons. Under the Federal Communications Act, a law conceived in 1934, the FCC is only authorized to allow federal agencies to jam the public airwaves. The cell phone industry, represented by CITA, an industry association, has strongly and vocally opposed permitting anyone to jam cell signals, including prison officials.

Undeterred, South Carolina conducted a test of jamming technology provided by Florida-based CellAntenna Corp. in November 2008. “It far exceeded our expectations,” said George Camp. “They showed the ability to pinpoint what was jammed and not affect anything outside the prison.” The FCC was invited to attend the jamming demonstration, which violated federal law and could subject the state to fines of up to $16,000 per day.

At an October 21, 2008 emergency meeting of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, Senator Whitmire expressed his desire for TDCJ to follow South Carolina’s lead. When Chairman Bell pointed out that jamming cell phone signals in Texas prisons would be a violation of federal law, Whitmire replied, “Why don’t you just do it and see what the consequences are?” Ironically, Tabler probably had the same thought before he used a cell phone to call Whitmire.

On January 15, 2009, federal legislation was introduced by U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rep. Kevin Brady, both of Texas, that would let a state’s governor petition the FCC to use cell phone jammers in prisons. The Safe Prisons Communications Act (S. 251 and H.R. 560) is presently pending in Congress. “Recent cases of prisoners smuggling cell phones behind bars highlight the need to use current technology to prevent this ability,” Sen. Hutchison stated.

The bill has received support from CellAntenna Corp., which would see its sales – and profits – increase significantly if prison officials are allowed to use cell phone jamming equipment. CellAntenna has also filed a petition for rulemaking with the FCC to permit state and local officials to use jamming technology.

Yet concerns over cell phone jamming are real. Brazil responded to prison riots that were coordinated via cell phone by jamming cell signals at one prison. The jamming knocked out cell phone service for 200,000 nearby residents. However, New Zealand recently completed a successful 12-month test of jamming equipment, and that country’s Department of Corrections is preparing to deploy cell phone jamming system-wide.

Technologies for detecting cell phones have also improved. One Pennsylvania prison and several federal Bureau of Prisons facilities are testing a detector made by Maryland-based EVI Technology. That system, and a similar one made by competitor AirPatrol, uses a signal detector hooked up to a computer to display the location of cell phones on a map of the prison. The system costs $25,000 for a small jail and up to $80,000 for a 3,000-bed facility.

A less expensive technology involves dogs. Maryland recently completed the training of three cell-phone-sniffing dogs using methods similar to those used to train canines to find drugs. The dogs reportedly have an 80% success rate and are not distracted by other electronic devices. The trainers don’t know exactly which components in the phones the dogs detect by smell, so they have to use several different brands of cell phones during the training process. The Washington, D.C. prison system is sending dogs to Maryland for training, and Virginia recently hired All States K-9 Detection, a California-based dog-training company, to train its canines to detect phones.

Cell phones remain a serious problem in prisons not only in the U.S., but worldwide. Even though many prisoners use illegal cell phones to call their loved ones (thereby avoiding extortionate prison phone rates), others use them for less benign purposes. A New Zealand prisoner used a cell phone to organize a methamphetamine deal worth over $500,000. Hundreds of incarcerated gang members in Brazil used them to organize attacks on police officers and riots in 73 prisons.

Cell phones also played a role in a Taliban attack on a military prison and the escape of 870 prisoners in Afghanistan. In Kenya, where over 600 cell phones and 400 unused SIM cards were recently discovered, prisoners used cell phones to run fake lottery scams.

In the U.K., prison officials have purchased special chairs called Body Orifice Security Scanners (BOSS) to detect cell phones hidden on prisoners or in their body cavities. In recent months the chairs have found 21 phones at just one U.K. facility.

Further, cell phones have been used to plan a murder in Maryland, a riot in Oklahoma, and escapes in Kansas and Tennessee – in the latter case resulting in the death of a prison guard. And, of course, a Texas death row prisoner used one to harass and threaten a state senator.

Just hours after the TDCJ’s system-wide lockdown ended last November, yet another phone was found in the cell of a Texas death row prisoner. From December 2008 through January 2009, 220 additional cell phones have been removed from Texas prisons. And in early February 2009, TDCJ Stiles Unit guard Eric J. Talmore, 24, was arrested after he tried to smuggle three cell phones and marijuana into the facility in a container of rice. Another guard arriving at work who witnessed Talmore getting caught turned around and left the prison, and has not returned.

Ironically, harsh punishment for the staff who smuggle cell phones into prisons is largely nonexistent. All of which indicates that efforts to keep cell phones out of prison cells will most likely be an expensive exercise in futility.

Sources: Austin American-Statesman, Houston Chronicle,, Associated Press, National Public Radio, KTRH-AM News Radio,, Morris News Service, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,, Washington Post, Dallas Morning News,, KETK News, News KBMT, USA Today, Kansas City Star,

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