Texas Prisons Can’t Stop Cell Phones At Cell Walls

AUSTIN (CBSDFW.COM) – Texas State Senator John Whitmire calls it the most unusual phone call of his life.  “Nothing shocks me anymore, but this would probably take first prize for the biggest, unbelievable story,” said the Senator from Houston.  “No Texan should have to worry about getting a call from an inmate.”

In fact, Whitmire received several calls in October, 2008.

“He said ‘I’m here on death row. I’m an inmate,'” recalls Whitmire, who then asked the inmate how he got hold of a phone. “He said ‘I bought it for $2100.'”

The Democratic Senator says the calls came from death row inmate Richard Tabler.  Before long, Tabler was revealing personal information about Whitmire’s daughters.  “He was making references to my family as he was asking me for assistance. Law enforcement said that was to put me on notice.”

Whitmire alerted the authorities and Tabler’s cell phone was confiscated. But it didn’t end there. Death row inmate Licho Escamillia says the entire unit was searched.  “They had a special team come down and conducted searches in our cells,” Escamillia said from his prison unit in Livingston.

Texas prison officials found cell phones on 14 death row inmates, including Escamillia.  “They found it in the side of the wall. They found some chips on the wall and they broke it down and they pull the phone out.”

The man convicted of killing Dallas police officer Christopher James claims he had no idea the phone was hidden in his cell wall.

In 2010 791 cell phones were taken away from Texas prisoners. From January through May of this year about 316 phones have been confiscated.

“One is too many,” said Michelle Lyons from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “It’s a felony to possess a cell phone within a prison and obviously a lot of damage can be done with a cell phone.”

Inmates can use cell phones to run drugs, organize thefts and order hits on the outside world. Many phones are smuggled in inside cakes, shoes and body cavities.

Senator Whitmire says the Texas Department of Criminal Justice needs to wake up.

“I’m always upset with the prison system, because I don’t think they go to zero tolerance and they don’t have the energy behind this issue until we have an incident.”

Whitmire points to inmate David Puckett, who recently used a cell phone to escape from a prison near Beaumont. The senator says it finally lit a fire under prison officials. But his frustration doesn’t end there. He says in 2007 the Texas Legislature gave $17 million to the Department of Criminal Justice to improve security.

The TDCJ says it has spent $7.6 million of that money for the purchase of surveillance cameras, scanning equipment, metal detectors and internal body scanners. Whitmire wants to know why the rest hasn’t been spent.  “I do not think it’s a high enough priority,” said the senator.

The one course of action both Whitmire and prison officials can agree on is the jamming of cell phones in Texas prisons.

“Ultimately, we would love to have the ability to use jamming technology,” said Lyons. “If you can’t use the phones inside the facility, then certainly it’s going to cut down on inmates even trying to get a phone in.”

However, FCC law prevents cell phone jamming anywhere. Senator Whitmire says the law needs to be updated.

“Let me tell you what I would do if I was running this place by myself,” Whitmire said with a sense for frustration. “I would jam them anyway and I would just see what the federal government did.”

But for now, that’s not an option.  However, Texas prison officials are looking at other technology that would help them pinpoint where a phone signal is originating from within a prison.

  • Nonya

    They just need to put the jamming device in place and tell the FCC to go take a flying leap.

  • http://fortworthinsight.com/news/texas-prisons-can%e2%80%99t-stop-cell-phones-from-reaching-cell-walls/ Texas Prisons Can’t Stop Cell Phones From Reaching Cell Walls « Fort Worth News Feeds

    […] Texas Prisons Can’t Stop Cell Phones From Reaching Cell Walls Texas State Senator John Whitmire calls it the most unusual phone call of his life. “Nothing shocks me anymore, but this would probably take first prize for the biggest, unbelievable story,” said the Senator from Houston. “No Texan should have to worry about getting a call from an inmate.” Go to News Source […]

  • Snadra Lewis

    I just watched your story about cell phones found in Texas Prisons. You did not focus on the REAL reason there are so many cells in prison; they are brought in by employees of the prison system. My son served 4 years in several prisons around the state and the implicate blame put on the visitors of prisoners is completely false. Before entering the prison to visit, everything has to be left outside with the exception of your one car key, your driver’s license and less than $20 dollars of quarters which have to be in a clear plastic bag. Once inside, sweaters, jackets and shoes are removed and the visitor has to walk through a body scanner and is then scanned up and down with a hand held scanner. The car key and the dirver’s license is then taken and held until the visit is over. Before the prisoner can enter the visitor’s area, he is strip searched and made to squat and cough to ensure there is nothing hidden in a body cavity. The contact visits are video taped and audio recorded and very closely watched by several guards within the visiting area. After the visit, the prisoners are again strip searched and made to squat and cough. My son told me that the drugs and other contraband including celll phones come in with the guards who are NOT searched when they report for work. If one is found to be smuggling contraband in, they are usually not fired as there is a serious need for guards which cannot be filled do to the low pay. Please put the blame where it belongs…with the employees. I don’t appreciate the blame being subtly placed on visitors with pictures of food, etc., containing contraband. Most citizens who have not had personal experiences with the Texas Prison System do not know that prisons do not alllow food or gifts from home delivered to the prisoners. Books have to be sent directly from the retail outlets or publishers and often those are banned and seized for ever changing arbitrary reasons. Please visit gritsforbreakfast.com for an honest look at our state penal system and do not misdirect the blame. If the employees were better paid, perhaps they would not be so quick to make extra money by supplying prisoners with contraband and cell phones.
    Sandra Lewis

    • Coralie

      Extremely hpeulfl article, please write more.

  • http://dallasforme.com/2011/06/texas-prisons-cant-stop-cell-phones-from-reaching-cell-walls-2/ Texas Prisons Can?t Stop Cell Phones From Reaching Cell Walls — Me and the Chicks

    […] from Houston. “No Texan should have to worry about getting a call from an inmate.” More from: http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2011/0… PreviousPost […]

  • JY

    Ms Lewis is right on target. My son has been in prison for almost 20 years and the search process we go through to visit him is 10 times worse than anything you go through at the airports. I would say that close to 100% of the contraband brought in is with the guards. If they were receiving decent wages we would have a better quality of personnel.

  • Dave Dawkins

    Sandra, while it’s true there are some dirty bosses in the system, visitors CAN and DO get contraband in. I worked in prisons in Texas for eight years, and caught plenty of visitors passing contraband to inmates. Yes, they have to empty their pockets. But a cell phone is very easily hidden in a body cavity. Yes, I’ve seen that done. I’ve found drugs hidden in baby formula.

    You’re partly correct that staff can be to blame; you’re either conveniently naive or deliberately dishonest if you think visitors aren’t also to blame.

  • Dave Dawkins

    Oh, and one other thing, Sandra…ALL staff entering TDCJ and TDCJ contract facilities are now searched, more scrupulously than any visitor. Boots come off, and they are pat-searched. And ANY staff member found to be in possession of contraband is IMMEDIATELY terminated. TDCJ cannot do any less. I’m sure your son told you all manner of horror stories. But remember how to tell if an inmate is lying. His mouth is moving.

  • Sandra Lewis

    My experience with TDJC ended almost 3 years ago when my son was paroled. He now has worked his way up to a good paying job, and has just successfully completed his first year of college. Surprised that a “lying” inmate can actually become a productive citizen? Well, it is true. He told me no horror stories about his incarcaration and has put it behind him. At the time he was in prison, there were no checks of emplyees entering the prison. You do not mention whether or not employees are scanned. If not, then they are not put through a more scrupulous security check than visitors. The visuals attached to this story showed homemade food items which had been used to smuggle cells in. You know as well as I do that those food items did not come in with visitors. As far as using body cavities, I think when the visitor is posed “spread eagle” and the scanner is run up and down the inside of the legs, no cell hidden in a body cavity would escape electronic detection. I am sure that a small amount of contraband does come in with visitors, as people are devious and daring. However, photographic evidence shown in this story points to employees smuggling the contraband in, and I still feel most comes in through the back door, not the front. You did not address the low pay. Is the state still closing prisons in very rural areas because they can not staff them fully due to the low pay?
    One more thing, Dave; my son actually liked a few of the guards he encounterd so I doubt all are bad or dirty. But there are plenty who should not be in their positions, and as you resorted to calling me ignorant or a liar, II think your 8 years in TDJC were well spent. You seem to have the prevailing attitude for the job.

    • Dave Dawkins

      Not surprised at all. I’ve seen it happen numerous times, and even shaken the hands of inmates I’ve transported to the Walls for their release.

      What you call “scanning” is walking through a metal detector. Yes, they do. Even the admin types who don’t go into the secured areas. You would think wrong on the body cavity issue. But I’m sure if you’d like to advocate strip-search and squat and cough for visitors, the TBCJ would hear you out!

      I never called you anything. I suggested two possibilities for your lack of understanding of the issue. If you truly took offense to that, then you seem to have the victim mentality of many inmates and their immediate families.

      One source the article didn’t mention, is deliveries of supplies. A unit where I worked once found large amounts of tobacco hidden in a shipment of fresh produce. The driver was arrested.

      I didn’t address wages because the issue is immaterial. It should not matter what TDCJ pays, the people working should have better sense than to risk ruining their lives and wearing white. Did I have a hard time making ends meet working there? From time to time. I can’t imagine having to raise a family on that pay. But it still doesn’t matter. Right is right, and wrong is wrong.

      You’re right about one thing. I do have the proper mentality to work there. Survival, looking out for my own, and treating EVERYTHING said by a convicted, incarcerated felon with profoundest suspicion unless it’s proven true. Perhaps in your world, that’s a bad thing. But it’s the reason I and thousands of others like me, went home safe and whole every night, despite the best efforts of hundreds of thousands of people like your son.

  • Sandra Lewis

    Victim mentality? No, just vexed at being called “conveniently naive or deliberately dishonest.” Naive? Perhaps, as this was the first and only time I have been exposed to prison or the legal system. I don’t even get traffic tickets. I was forced to learn about prisons when my son committed a crime. Being painted with the same brush because I happen to be related to someone who engaged in criminal activity is unfair and mean spirited. Naive, but not “convieniently” so. Nor was I dishonest, deliberately or otherwise. I find your choice of words very offensive.
    As far as keeping yourself and others safe from my son and others, I cannot speak for the others but my son was a model prisoner with no cases filed against him. He graduated from one of the first PEP programs at the Cleveland Unit and completed parole successfully.
    When i visited my son, I saw with my own eyes guards and other employees walk in the front door laden with bags of fast food. Both sets of electronic doors were remotely opened and they walked around the scanners and into the interior of the prison without any other guards in sight to check their bags. It is not naive to imagine that cell phone easily entered the prison along with the fast food. I am glad there are better safeguards in place now, but my personal experience showed a large hole in security.

    • Dave Dawkins

      Once again, I never called you those things. Your false insistence that I did clearly proves your victim mentality. Awwwww, the facts are “mean”. Life’s tough, lady. Get a cup.

      Model prisoner is just a euphemism for one who didn’t get caught.

      You saw what happened in the past. Before the new safeguards were put in place, it was common to actually trust the Officers who worked at a prison. Why? Because most of them weren’t criminals. Gee, what a shocking thing to suggest!

  • Sandra Lewis

    Wow. You never called me those things? You are a liar. I cut and pasted your exact words from your comment dated June 14 at 8:12 pm. Feel free to scroll back up and read your own words. Having just lied, you have invalidated everything else you have said. I see no reason to continue this discussion with a cynical liar.

  • Dave Dawkins

    No, Sandra.,..you’re lying. I suggested those things as possible reasons for your lack of understanding. Perhaps I can locate an eight year-old to explain the difference to you?

    Use any cheap excuse you need to flee the conversation. The reality is, you’re wrong, your son’s a convict, and it’s probably your own fault for failing to raise him right.

  • Sandra Lewis

    Grow up, Dave. You are a bully. You need professional help. Either you do not comprehend what you read and write or you are delibertatly dishonest. I offer this as a reason for your lack of understanding. You don’t know my son, yet you continue to take pot shots at him to insult me. And now you really show your stupidity by accusing me of raising my son to be a criminal. Incredible. Go crawl back in your bottle or kick your kid or beat up your wife or whatever else sadists do to make themselves feel like big men. You apparently cannot maintain a discussion without personal insults and I refuse to play your sick games.

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