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Contraband Smuggling by Texas Prison Guards Rarely Punished Harshly

by Matt Clarke

A review conducted by a Houston newspaper concluded that a large quantity and variety of contraband is still being smuggled into Texas prisons by state prison guards, and those caught smuggling rarely receive harsh punishment.

Between 2003 and 2008, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) brought contraband-related disciplinary action against 263 employees. Of those, 75% received probation, 35 were fired and 26 received no punishment. The only employee who was criminally prosecuted and convicted did not receive prison time.

Contraband smuggling is “the biggest security problem the prisons face,” according to John Moriarty, TDCJ’s Inspector General. “One corrupt employee can really compromise the security of the operation tremendously ... they can keep bringing and bringing stuff in.”

That issue made headlines after a guard allegedly smuggled a cell phone onto death row and condemned prisoner Richard Lee Tabler used it to place harassing calls to state Senator John Whitmire. The resulting political brouhaha led to a system-wide 10-day shakedown in October 2008, plus the implementation of new procedures for searching all persons entering TDCJ facilities, including guards. [See: PLN, March 2009, p.29].

Nonetheless, more than 200 cell phones were discovered in state prisons in the five months after the system-wide lockdown ended – including eight phones found on death row. Tabler was indicted on charges related to possession of a contraband cell phone in May 2009, as were his mother and sister. Another TDCJ prisoner, Michael Roy Toney, also was charged.

Yet a review of five years of disciplinary reports for TDCJ employees revealed that attempts to deliver contraband to prisoners resulted in minimal punishment in most of the 47 cases cited. Only seven employees were fired. Even the new zero-tolerance policy “doesn’t mean someone is terminated,” said TDCJ spokesperson Michelle Lyons. “It means it’s addressed and is dealt with accordingly. In some cases, depending on the contraband, the fitting punishment is probation or suspension. In more serious cases, where the facts support that the person intended to introduce contraband to an offender, then it’s dealt with possibly by termination.”

That has certainly not been the case in the past. In 2003, a guard at the Estelle Unit was discovered with various knives, a cell phone, two electric razors, prescription drugs, a lighter, portable radios, a box cutter blade, cigars and cigarettes in his backpack. His punishment? Four days suspension and 10 months probation. Another guard received six months probation after being discovered with an unopened can of chewing tobacco while entering the Beto Unit.

The highest numbers of contraband cases involving prison staff were at the Stiles, Michael and Allred Units. At the Connally, Hughes, Estelle and Smith Units, every TDCJ employee caught with contraband received probation. Staff at six other prisons received probation as punishment in contraband cases over 80% of the time.

The lackluster punishment imposed on guards who smuggle contraband stands in stark contrast to the harsh penalties sought for prisoners caught with illicit items. For example, on May 12, 2009, Coffield Unit prisoner Derrick Ross, 38, received a 60-year sentence after a jury found him guilty of possession of a cell phone in a correctional facility. He was sentenced as a habitual offender.

The 68 cases of staff contraband smuggling that were referred to TDCJ’s Special Prosecution Unit since 2003 resulted in more than 90 charges being filed. Nine cases were dismissed after indictments were returned, and grand juries refused to indict in three cases. Others are still pending. Those include 26 cases involving tobacco, 17 for cell phones and at least 7 allegations of bribery of TDCJ employees by prisoners, according to Gina DeBottis, who heads the Special Prosecution Unit.

Meanwhile, contraband problems at TDCJ facilities continue – spurred in part by prison employees who engage in lucrative but illegal contraband smuggling. In April 2009, TDCJ officials announced that 21 cell phones, 21 chargers, 14 SIM cards, two MP3 players and 8 bags of tobacco were found in a dog kennel at the Stiles Unit.

Sources: Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News, Palestine Herald,

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