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Texas Guards and Prisoners Rarely Prosecuted for Contraband Cellphones

According to an investigation conducted by the Texas Tribune, guards and prisoners are rarely prosecuted for the contraband cell phones found within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). The investigation discovered that only 5% of the cellphone smuggling cases investigated by the TDCJ's Office of Inspector General from 2009 through 2013 resulted in a criminal sentence. During that time, the office examined 3,687 cellphones, but sought no charges for 2,142 of them and secured sentences in a mere 190 cases.

TDCJ officials say that it is hard to link a cellphone to a specific person and that prosecuting prison cell phone cases often falls to cash-strapped rural counties where the district attorneys may be more interested in spending their limited resources on local law enforcement instead of using them to tack an additional sentence on to a prisoner who is already incarcerated. Therefore, the prosecutors may be satisfied if the TDCJ simply punishes the prisoners using administrative disciplinary penalties.

The allure for guards to smuggle cellphones is money. Entry-level guards receive an annual salary of around $29,000, but a single cell phone can be sold for as much as $3,000.

"The temptation is there, if there's not a strong deterrent to misbehavior," said Terry Pelz, a former warden and prison consultant who advocates tougher criminal penalties for guards caught with contraband. "Your weakest link is the employees bringing the contraband in."

The high cost of prison phone calls drives the demand for contraband cellphones in TDCJ. At up to 26$ a minute, including service fees, the cost of a prison phone call is "so high, that's one of the reasons why inmates turn to cellphones," according to University of Texas at Austin prison expert Michelle Deitch. "They really need the phone access, which promotes healthier families, but at those rates it becomes an incredible burden on the families."

The Texas Legislature has appropriated $10 million for "security enhancements" to fight contraband in TDCJ every two years since 2009, the year it made smuggling a cellphone into a prison a felony. Some of the money was spent on "managed access systems" at two prisons which intercept outgoing cellular signals and only allow authorized numbers to connect to the cellular system. Some of the funds were also spent on increasing video surveillance of guards. These and other measures have been successful, according to TDCJ officials, who note that the number of cellphones confiscated in TDCJ fell from 738 in 2012 to 594 in 2013. However, a similar drop was observed from 791 in 2010 to 630 in 2011, so there is no assurance that the decrease is permanent. Further, the reduction is not evenly spread among the prisons. Whereas Stiles Unit and McConnell Unit, two of the prisons with the most cellphone confiscations, had confiscation rate decreases of close to 90% and 40% from 2012 to 2013, confiscations at Ferguson Unit increased from 43 to 195 in the same time period.

In fiscal year 2013 alone, the state received $13.1 million as its cut of the windfall profits made by Century Link, the phone service provider in TDCJ. This gives both TDCJ and Century Link a financial interest in suppressing cell phone use in prison. That may be why Century Link was also the provider of the two managed access systems. It also explains why, when TDCJ talks about suppressing contraband cell phones, it claims that prisoners want them to direct gang activity outside the prisons and coordinate escapes, never mentioning excessive phone charges as a motivation to smuggle cell phones.


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