NEWS

Texas Prisons Fight Contraband Cell Phones

By Matthew Harwood

Texas prison officials are fighting an increase in contraband cell phones smuggled to prisoners, after a death row inmate called a state senator early this month, spoke out about abuses in prison, and allegedly insinuated a threat against the senator's two daughters.

According to the Austin American-Statesman:

State Sen. John Whitmire knew the phone call he received two weeks ago was far from ordinary when he heard clanging steel doors and hollering. The caller wanted to prove to Whitmire that he was in prison. On Texas' death row, in fact.

Calling from what is supposed to be the most secure part of Texas' prison system, the caller told Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that oversees prison operations, that he knew that Whitmire had two daughters.

The caller also knew their ages and where they lived in Houston, among other personal details the convict said he had gleaned from the Internet.

"Frankly, that scared the hell out of me," said Whitmire, D-Houston, who quickly notified authorities.

The stranger who called was none other than Richard Lee Tabler, a convicted murderer who resides on Texas' death row. (The article makes no mention of exactly which prison houses Tabler). Tabler, authorities believe, paid a prison guard $2,100 to smuggle the cell phone to him. He then rented out the phone to other death row inmates. According to authorities, more than 2,800 phone calls were made from the cell phone during the past month.

Tabler's mother, Lorraine, has also been arrested after authorities traced the phone back to where it was purchased: a Wal-Mart in Waco, Texas. Subpoenaed records showed she paid the cell phone's bill every month.

The motivation behind Tabler's calls to Whitmire as well as three newspaper reporters was to report abuses on death row. Governor Rick Perry responded by locking down the entire Texas prison system and ordered all inmates, staff, and visitors to be searched for contraband. Prison authorities also moved to protect Tabler from "possible inmate reprisals" as state lawmakers called an emergency hearing today to interview prison officials.

Four of the inmates who allegedly used Tabler's smuggled cell phone had gang affiliations, which included Texas Syndicate, Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, and the Crips. Cell phones, prison officials say, can be used to organize crimes outside the prison walls.

According to the Statesman, cell phone smuggling is an increasing scourge inside the Texas prison system. Between September 2006 and August 2007, 372 investigations into illegal cell phone use were opened. That number more than doubled to 864 from August 2007 to September 2008.

Two-hundred-and-seventy-one cell phones were confiscated inside Texas prisons in 2006. That number jumped to 527 in 2007. Prison officials this year have already confiscated 678 cell phones, according to statistics from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Prison officials say technology exists to jam cell phone signals but they have not been granted approval to implement it inside the prison from the Federal Communications Commission.

POSTSCRIPT: The day after the Statesman reported the cell phone scandal, Tabler almost attempted suicide inside his cell. A three-foot long piece of sheet  found inside his cell led to prison guard intervention. Tabler has pleaded for Texas to execute him and has waived all appeals. The Statesman says he has been moved to a new unit that houses psychotic prisoners.

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