Smuggled phones get inmates on Facebook

By Joel Eisenbaum - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Texas inmates are using smuggled smartphones to post pictures and status updates to Facebook, Local 2 Investigates found.

"We have been able to identify many offenders that have illegal cell phones and smartphones all because they are intent on keeping up their Facebook page from their prison cell," said Bruce Toney, inspector general for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "They seem to need to keep their Facebook page active. Obviously, we have analysts who spend a lot of time checking Facebook under offenders' names."

Convicted murderer Timothy Barta was one of the inmates busted posting on Facebook with an illegal smartphone. Barta was convicted of capital murder of a Pasadena store clerk in 1991. He's serving a life sentence in prison.

"He's one of two people with a set of eyes I'll never forget," said Bill Hawkins, a former Harris County prosecutor who handled Barta's case. "That's just scary. They'd have absolutely no idea how dangerous Timothy Barta is."

Barta is one of many Texas convicts brazen enough to post on a Facebook page from behind bars. Toney said other inmates can't resist using illegal cell smartphones to take a picture of themselves and then send it out to family and friends.

"They're in their prison whites, and there's a clear picture," Toney said. "You can look on almost every phone. They will go to their sink in their cell where there's a mirror and take a picture of themselves. It's amazing."

The inmates' pictures and Facebook pages are enough to make victims furious.

"It just opens the wounds," said Tonya Hardin, a member of the Parents of Murdered Children group in Houston. "It's just another way to make us victims all over again."

Facebook posts and texted photos are just the beginning. Investigators said inmates are also using smartphones for serious crimes -- everything from stealing identities to orchestrating murders in neighborhoods in Houston and across the state.

"Gangs use the cell phones not only to communicate with people in the free world and coordinate all types of activity, but often times they're talking to offenders on other units," Toney said.

Toney said inmates use smartphone video cameras to monitor corrections officers on their rounds, hoping to show other inmates where and when officers patrol. It's just one reason why the battle to crack down on prison smartphones is heating up. Dozens of corrections officers have been busted across the state for smuggling phones for a price -- sometimes hundreds of dollars per phone.

Inmates themselves have found incredibly uncomfortable ways to smuggle smartphones to their cells.

"It's almost a big opportunity to do a lot of bragging and show off how tough they think they are," Hawkins said.

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