CORPUS CHRISTI – Sentencing is underway for those former prison guards charged in a cell phone and drug smuggling operation inside the McConnell Unit.
Three of those charged were Beeville residents.
Lela Ysolde Hinojosa pleaded guilty earlier to racketeering — providing a cell phone to a prison inside the prison in exchange for money.
She was sentenced Tuesday to one year and nine months in prison with two years of supervised release.
She was among 32 people, including 17 correctional officers from the McConnell Unit Prison, indicted federally with charges that range from selling drugs within the prison to smuggling phones for gang members. Three of those indicted listed Beeville as home.
The indictment was unsealed eight months ago.
The 23-page indictment details specific acts, wherein the correctional officers assisted prisoners incarcerated in the TDCJ’s McConnell Unit in Beeville by smuggling cellular telephones and drugs into the prison system.
The drugs and phones were allegedly sold inside the prison to other inmates.
Also sentenced Wednesday was Arturo Salas who, in exchange for a guilty plea, was given one year and 10 months in prison with two years supervised release.
Stephanie Deming, the third local person to be sentenced, was ordered to serve two years and three months in prison with three years supervised release.
This indictment identified a scheme by gang leaders of the Raza Unida and Aryan Brotherhood to orchestrate criminal activity from behind bars, according to the indictment. Those leaders are accused of organizing murders, attempted murders, home invasions and shootings through smuggled cellphones.
During one of the sentencings, former prison guard Emmanuel Cotto, also a former Marine, told Judge Hayden Head that he was approached a number of times by one inmate. The inmate, he said, knew how many children the guard had and threatened him and his family if he did not comply.
During a hearing seven months ago when Deming entered her guilty plea with the court, prosecutors said she cut holes in the soles of her boots to hide cellphones and marijuana.
Area news reports reveal that Deming, who worked in the prison’s segregation unit, told prosecutors that hiding contraband inside of boots is the most common method to get it inside the prison. This is because during security searchers, officers only shake the boots but do not stick their hands inside them.
That changed on Oct. 28, 2009, though, when an officer put his hand inside her boot during a search.
The officer found two cellphones and chargers with the plugs cut off.
Deming, according to news reports, told agents that a plug is more difficult to conceal and that inmates know how to convert their radios into phone chargers.
According to testimony, Deming smuggled four cellphones and was paid $400 for each. She also was paid about $500 for every four ounces of marijuana, prosecutors said.
Prison officials earlier this year took an extra precaution to combat the influx of cell phones behind bars.
They installed what is effectively a shield of cell phone silence.
If the phone is unauthorized, it doesn’t work inside the prison walls.
McConnell is one of two TDCJ prisons with the system installed. The second is the Mark Stiles Unit in Beaumont.
The system, implemented just seven months ago, doesn’t jam cell phone signals.
The Federal Communications Commission has strict rules which prohibit telephone jamming, largely to prevent any emergency and 911 calls from being blocked.
To abide by these rules and still accomplish their goals, officials had to come up with a system that would block illegal cell phones but would not jam legitimate calls made from legitimate callers.
The system is simple in concept.
Any cell phone not on an approved list cannot get a signal.
Same goes for text messages and Internet access, except with these, there is an added feature.
Those are diverted to a central location and never make it to their intended recipient.
The agency has made considerable strides in stopping the flow of contraband cell phones into prisons in recent years. In 2009, TDCJ staff statewide seized 1,110 contraband cell phones that had made it into the offender population. They seized 791 in 2010, 630 in 2011 and 738 in 2012.