Prison officials expand contraband search
By Mike Ward
Saturday, October 25, 2008
At first, everyone going into Texas prisons was being searched as part of a massive contraband sweep. On Friday afternoon, officials ordered everyone leaving to be searched, too.
The reason: At one Beaumont prison, officials reportedly found guards carrying out cell phone chargers — presumably to keep inmates from getting caught with them.
"The warden there instituted searches for everyone going in and out ... and we're making that systemwide now until the lockdown is over," said Michelle Lyons, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
"We don't want any (contraband) coming in. We don't want anything going out."
Effective late Friday afternoon, anyone entering or leaving Texas' 112 state prisons and parole lockups had to undergo pat searches and a run through a metal detector — an unprecedented security step.
Initial reports from prison officials indicated that at least two cell phone chargers were found on correctional officers leaving the Stiles Unit outside Beaumont overnight Thursday. Lyons confirmed that prison was the first to order the searches for those leaving, but said she had no details.
With more than 2,800 convicts and 776 employees, the Stiles Unit has the worst problem with smuggled cell phones. Since January, 180 cell phones have been seized there, of the more than 600 statewide, according to agency statistics.
Several weeks ago, correctional officers found more than 60 cell phones when they looked inside a new compressor as it was delivered.
The latest step came as prison officials reported that 40 smuggled cell phones, 36 chargers and 5 SIM (cell phone) cards have been confiscated since the sweep began.
The contraband sweep began late Monday and all state prisons were ordered locked down after death row inmate Richard Lee Tabler was busted for having a cell phone used to make 2,800 calls in a month.
Tabler, 29, said he paid $2,100 to get the phone smuggled in. Authorities are investigating who smuggled in the phone.
Tabler's calls included several to state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who heads a legislative committee that oversees prisons. Investigators suspect at least nine other convicted murderers on death row also made calls from the phone.
Tabler's mother and sisters have been arrested on charges they bought minutes for his phone to allow him to make calls.
If convicted, they face up to two years in a state jail.
Friday's expansion of the searches came as employee complaints mounted.
At some prisons, officials who didn't have permission to speak publicly said the pat searches are triggering dozens of grievances and formal complaints, including some in which female employees alleged that male searchers improperly touched their breasts. At others, employees have complained they are not being allowed to bring in lunches and other personal items they had previously, said Brian Olsen, executive director of a labor union that represents some Texas correctional officers.
At the prison system's headquarters just north of Huntsville, the lockdown meant that trustees and porters who serve as janitors, office helpers and errand runners are not around.
By Friday, that had some employees complaining that the lockdown was hampering normal operations, an assertion prison officials dismissed. firstname.lastname@example.org
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