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I-Team: Texas Fighting Back Against Smuggled Prison Cell Phones

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(credit: KTVT/KTXA) Brian New
Brian joined the CBS 11 News team in 2013 after working a...
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DALLAS (CBS 11 NEWS) - Cell phones can fetch more than a thousand dollars inside Texas prisons and have become the most sought after contraband among inmates.

Though they are banned, just last year investigators found hundreds of smuggled cell phones.  They were discovered hidden in juice cans, books, and one was even found inside an inmate’s body cavity.

“They are quite creative,” said Bruce Toney, Texas Department of Criminal Justice Inspector General.  “We have a photograph of an x-ray of an offender that has the phone inside of him.”

X-Ray showing cell phone inside of an inmate.  (credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice Inspector General)

X-Ray showing cell phone inside of an inmate. (credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice Inspector General)

In Texas prisons last year, more than 900 cell phones were confiscated.  Most, 738, were not discovered until an inmate had used it.

Inside the walls of Mineral Wells prison 117 were found, the most recovered at any facility.

“We realized quickly that we needed to be able get into these cell phones and extract the information,” said Toney.

To access the information stored inside confiscated cell phones, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice created a forensics lab.  When attached to readers and sophisticated software, every call, text, and picture taken on a phone can be extracted.

“We have invested heavily in equipment to get everything we can off the cell phones,” said the TDCJ inspector general.

However, by the time the cell phones make it to the lab, it’s often too late.

Juice can equipped to hide a cell phone.  (credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice Inspector General)

Juice can equipped to hide a cell phone. (credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice Inspector General)

The Raza Unida prison gang used smuggled cell phones to traffic drugs, organize home invasions, and put hits out on witnesses.  Inmate David Puckett used a cell phone to plan his escape, and death row inmate Richard Tabler used a cell phone to call State Senator John Whitmire.

“He started threatening me and my family to have us killed,” said Senator Whitmire of the call.  “Well, that gets my attention.”

Last month at two of its facilities, Stiles in Beaumont and McConnell in Beeville, the state started testing equipment that blocks calls from all unauthorized phones.  It’s known as an access management system.  Toney said it’s working.

However, the systems are expensive – more than $1 million per facility.

Cell phone found inside a book. (credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice Inspector General)

Cell phone found inside a book. (credit: Texas Department of Criminal Justice Inspector General)

Texas lawmakers have not approved the more than$100 million it would cost to put the system at every Texas prison.

“So what, so what,” said Whitmire of the price tag.  “Public safety costs money and I can’t think of having a better use.”

Despite having the largest number of smuggled cell phones discovered at any one unit, the Mineral Wells prison is not scheduled to receive an access management system.

Senator Whitmire also told CBS 11 that he is pushing to close the Mineral Wells facility in part because of its problem with contraband cell phones.

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