in Houston, Texas

Beaumont prison where prisoner used cellphone to escape has top number of guards disciplined for sneaking in cellphones, other violations

Wednesday, Mar 23, 2011, 07:54AM CST
By Jennifer Peebles
cellphone

The Beaumont prison from which an inmate escaped with the help of a cellphone earlier this month has one of Texas’ worst track records for prison personnel bringing cellphones into the facility.

That’s according to a Texas Watchdog analysis of prison system data procured by WOAI-Channel 4 in San Antonio.

Stiles Unit, the maximum-security facility from which David Puckett, 27, escaped and made his way to Nebraska, had the third-highest number of incidents in which Texas Department of Criminal Justice workers were accused of bringing or allowing cellphones, phone components or accessories into prison confines between 2006 and mid-2010, the data show. It had 42 such cases.

With nearly 3,000 inmates and 800 employees, Stiles tied with Neal Unit, another state prison near Amarillo, for the highest number of overall reported cellphone-related disciplinary infractions for state staff, with 46, the database shows. TDCJ oversees 113 adult prison and state jail facilities.

Authorities haven’t said how they think Puckett obtained the phone he used to plan his breakout and meet up with a female admirer in Omaha, where he was recaptured. But the prison system’s inspector general, John Moriarty, said prison personnel are a factor in phones coming into the Texas prisons.

“One bad employee can bring in a lot of phones,” Moriarty said.

Altogether, the data show more than 1,100 instances in which Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees were accused of breaking prison system rules by bringing cellphones or phone parts into prisons -- intentionally or accidentally -- or otherwise allowing inmates to access a cellphone over three and a half years.

In two-thirds of the cases, the employee was found not guilty, Texas Watchdog found.

“The reason is that in many cases, (the prison system’s inspector general) did not find evidence that the individual intended to bring a phone into the unit for the purposes of smuggling it to an offender,” TDCJ spokeswoman Michelle Lyons said in an e-mail.

“There obviously is a big difference between an officer who is found with their personal phone in their front pocket because they forget to take it out, and an officer who has six phones and chargers taped to their stomach. Still, those employees who forget to remove their phone from their pocket, etc., may face disciplinary action.”

Some of the cases are noted in state records as accidental, such as when guards or other staff reported for duty and found they had accidentally brought their cellphone with them in a coat pocket. In nearly two dozen instances, records show, Texas prison personnel turned themselves in when they realized they still had their phone on them.

But they aren’t all accidental, state records indicate. It seems Texas prison employees, like the rest of the world, can’t stand to be away from their phones, even when their bosses demand it.

Cellphones have been discovered in Texas prisons inside employees’ smocks and pants pockets; a clerk’s bra strap; a psychologist’s box of paperwork, in guards’ jacket pockets, eyeglass cases, and lunch bags, and wrapped in napkins and a Ziploc bag and hidden under a box of food, just to name a few places, records show.

Some examples from the database: A chaplain at the Cotulla inmate transfer facility in South Texas tried to sneak in his cellphone inside his motorcycle helmet. A phone was found lying in a flower bed inside the secured area at Woodman Unit, outside Waco; another guard’s phone was found left in a bathroom at Wynne Unit outside Huntsville.  A prison lieutenant’s phone was found inside a boot when he left his uniform boots to be shined by an inmate at a prison north of Lubbock.

Phones are the most troublesome contraband in state prisons

Phones are the No. 1 most troublesome contraband in the Texas prisons, Moriarty said -- but they are a problem facing other states as well.

California authorities, who confiscated 10,000 cellphones in their prisons last year, recently found even Charles Manson had one; they confiscated it but later found he’d acquired another one.

Prison inmates across the nation have used cellphones to “intimidate and threaten witnesses; transmit photographs, including offensive pictures sent to victims; orchestrate crimes, such as gang activity; coordinate escapes; bribe prison officers; order retaliation against other inmates; text other prisoners; gain access to the Internet; and create security breaches,” said a 2010 report by two criminal justice professors that appeared in the FBI’s Law Enforcement Bulletin last year.

The key source of phones in California’s prisons, the state inspector general said in a 2009 report, was prison staff members. One guard made $150,000 in bribes alone by selling 150 phones to inmates, the report said. The guard was fired -- taking in a cellphone is against California prison rules -- but he couldn’t be prosecuted criminally because California has no specific law against it, the inspector general said.

That’s not the case in Texas. It’s a felony offense here to supply an inmate with a cellphone or a cellphone component, such as a “subscriber identity module” or “SIM” card, on which user information such as phone numbers are stored, or to purchase minutes of service for a phone being used by an inmate.
 
But that doesn’t stop the flow of phones into Texas prisons. The state confiscated 791 cellphones in Texas prisons last year, and one in every four was found at Stiles Unit, Moriarty said.

More than two dozen phones and phone components were found on Texas’ death row at Polunsky Unit outside Livingston in 2008. Those searches were part of a statewide sweep of prisons prompted by convicted killer Richard Tabler’s threatening phone calls to state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston. (Prison officials later found Tabler’s mother and sister had put minutes on his phone, which he and his buddies had used to make 2,800 calls.)

Texas prison employees are also forbidden by rule from bringing personal cellphones into a prison at any time, Moriarty said.

Employees arriving at a prison can leave their personal cellphones in their locked cars in the parking lot while they work, but they’re not allowed to have them beyond that point. Employees who have been issued cellphones by the state -- usually just the higher-ups, Moriarty said -- can bring those phones with them inside the prison, though they must be checked in upon arrival and when they leave.

Many of the phones mentioned in the Texas state database were found as the employee entered the prison building. But others were discovered the old fashioned way -- being either spotted or heard by supervisors, such as the case of the assistant warden at a state jail in Beaumont whose cellphone rang in her office, and the guard at Wynne Unit whose phone rang as he walked into the gatehouse.

Another guard, stationed at his post outside Darrington Unit in Brazoria County in December 2007, made the mistake of using his cellphone to repeatedly call his boss inside the prison, where the ranking officer’s Caller ID gave him away. He was put on probation for six months, records show.

But those cases might seem minor compared to those of guards accused of bring cellphones, SIM cards and other components into the prison with the intention of selling or otherwise providing the phones to inmates.

In one case from 2009, a Texas prison sergeant confiscated a cellphone from an inmate and was later accused of selling that phone to another inmate. Last year, a guard brought in three cellphones wrapped in Saran wrap -- and when the phones were found, she assaulted the lieutenant, records say.  

Both of those cases were at Stiles Unit, records show.

Altogether, the database shows some 40 cases in which prison personnel were accused of bringing in cellphones at Stiles. The accused ranged from rank-and-file guards and staff members to two majors who were reported walking into the prison with their phones on the same day in October 2009.

“Without bad officers Puckett probably would have never had the cell phone,” David Bellow, a former guard at Stiles’ administrative segregation unit, wrote in an open letter to Texas prison authorities published online a few days ago. But Bellow blamed TDCJ’s thin staffing of the prisons, leading to overworked guards responsible for too many inmates, as the main issue behind Puckett’s escape, along with a “blind spot” on the prison grounds that he says is widely known to the Stiles community.

He’s not the only one to stay Stiles Unit has multiple problems. Whitmire, chairman of the powerful Senate Criminal Justice Committee, last week called Stiles “the worst of the worst” in a Houston Chronicle interview. The Backgate, a Web site largely focused on Texas prison issues, last week called Stiles “perpetually troubled,” though it lauded the work of Stiles’ still-new senior warden, Richard Alford, for “improvement in contraband issues, and weeding out of corrupt employees.”

The state says it’s working on the problem. “At the Stiles Unit in particular, we are in the process of installing hundreds of video surveillance cameras which will assist in our efforts and serve as a further deterrent to individuals who are considering smuggling contraband into the facility,” Lyons said.

The work should be finished in May. Cameras have already been installed at Polunsky Unit and are currently being installed at Darrington, she said.
 
Correction: This story has been updated since publication to reflect that Neal Unit, outside Amarillo, is not a maximum-security facility. Texas Watchdog regrets the error.
 
***
Jennifer Peebles is deputy editor at Texas Watchdog in Houston. Contact her at 281-656-1681 or jennifer@texaswatchdog.org. Follow her on Twitter at @jpeebles or @texaswatchdog.

 

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Photo of cell phone by flickr user papalars, used via a Creative Commons license.

Comments
Joe smith
Tuesday, 11/22/2011 - 01:11PM

Cant stop phones on stiles unit...cantt stop a female officer for wa.ting to love a man..the world getts smarter not dummer..joe smith coulnt stop it..for every phone found...6 are brought in..endless battle..

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