Can you hear me now? In prison?


by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and photojournalist ERIN COKER

Bio | Email | Follow: @AndyP_KVUE

Posted on February 27, 2013 at 11:33 PM

Updated Thursday, Feb 28 at 3:08 PM

A public safety concern is on the rise. A KVUE Defenders investigation found the number of cell phones confiscated inside Texas prisons jumped last year, despite increased efforts to stop it.
KVUE’S Andy Pierrotti explains what the state is doing about it.

An Austin syndicated radio program now based in Nashville, "The Bobby Bones Show," gets its share of crazy callers.

“It's usually adults who call in and confess their crimes, or cheating, or they're having an affair right now," explained Lunchbox, one of the show’s hosts.

A few months ago, one caller confessed he was calling from behind bars.

Radio host:  "Are you in prison right now?"
Prisoner: "Yea"
Radio host: "What!? How are you calling us right now?
Prisoner: "Well, you know money talks, really. I mean, they don' t pay the [correction officers] very much. So, I mean if you give them enough, they'll bring them what you want."

While the state's prison system isn't sure whether that call came from inside a Texas prison, a KVUE Defenders investigation discovered the number of cell phones confiscated from state prisoners has increased from 630 in 2011 to more than 738 in 2012. 

The Defenders found prisoners smuggling cell phones inside ice cans, books, inside hair brushes and in places only X-rays can see.

"They can secrete phones in different parts of the body where people may not want to search," contended Travis County Sheriff Spokesman Roger Wade.

While it happens far more in prison, Wade admits jail inmates also smuggle cell phones. In 2010, a corrections officer smuggled a cell phone to an inmate in Travis County.

"The inmate was actually using that phone to orchestrate his own criminal doings while he was in jail and trying to figure out ways to get out of jail," said Wade.

Prisoners use them to harass or threaten people too. "In the prison system, you just have to ask Senator Whitmire and he can tell you," said Wade.

In 2008, State Senator John Whitmire of Houston held emergency hearings after death row inmate Richard Tabler got a cell phone and threatened Whitmire and his family. Lockdowns were ordered for all of the state's prisons to find smuggled cell phones.

"I'm looking for urgency of the moment. Jam the damn things and see what happens,” argued Whitmire during a hearing at the time.

It's against federal law to jam cell phones, but this year Texas is installing something called managed access technology inside two prisons. It's similar to jamming, but legal.

It acts like a cell tower for the prison. If calls come from a cell phone not on an approved list, the calls will be blocked.

When a Mississippi prison installed it a few years ago, the system intercepted more than 600,000 calls and text messages from inmates within months.