Death Row Inmate Makes 2,000 Phone Calls From Lew Sterrett, Calls Security So Loose It’s “Insane”

The following comes to us courtesy of special FrontBurner contributor Thomas Korosec.

A recent 50-day stay in the Lew Sterrett Justice Center by a death row inmate has prompted investigations into security at the state prison system and the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department. Authorities have reviewed approximately 2,000 phone calls made by Randy Halprin, one of the Texas Seven, whose prison escape in December 2000 resulted in the murder of Irving police officer Aubrey Hawkins. Halprin made the calls, some for phone sex with his wife, during a trip to Dallas for appeal hearings in late August and September. In some, he marvels at the loose treatment he at times received.

The calls include one in which Halprin listened as his wife, Crystal Halprin, used another cell phone to call the warden at the Polunski Unit, where Halprin has been on death row since 2003. In the call, a recording of which can be heard below, [audio:CrystalHalprin.mp3]
Halprin’s wife addresses the official with a “Hey, Tim, it’s Crystal.” Three sources in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office say the person on the line is senior warden Timothy Simmons. Crystal Halprin asks: “Do you have any idea how long it might take for them to bring him back? Do you think they’ll bring him back pretty quick?”

To her husband, Crystal then relays what she was told by Simmons: “He thinks it’ll be soon, this week generally. He said for sure.” Halprin was transported back to prison in Huntsville two days after the October 4 call.

On the recording, Halprin expresses wonder that the assistant warden took his wife’s call, even though, as she relayed, he was in a crowded meeting when his cell phone rang. “And he still answered?” the condemned prisoner asks.

“MMMhhhm,” she says. “That’s good people.”

In another recorded call, dated August 25, Crystal Halprin is heard discussing with the prison official whether her husband can return to prison with a wedding ring. She makes the phone call, which can be heard here, [audio:CrystalHalprin-2.mp3] after Halprin asks her to “call your friend,” a person he later refers to as Warden Simmons.

“The only thing I can think of is if you call your friend and get permission. You get permission it’s a different thing. It’s a whole ‘nother ballgame,” Halprin tells her before he listens in while she calls the prison official.

First Assistant Dallas District Attorney Terri Moore, who is aware of the investigations, says of the calls to Simmons, “There’s a bunch of calls to [Simmons]. She doesn’t even give him her name they’re so tight. To manage all their inmates, I’m sure they try to be a little open to families, but you don’t let people know when you are going to come and go from the penitentiary. That’s a gigantic security breach.”

It would be a breach in the case of a regular inmate, let alone a member of the group that engineered one of the most notorious prison breaks in TDCJ history. Law enforcement sources say the Texas Seven inmates, who are under their own set of extraordinary security measures, are moved frequently within the prison, are housed apart from one another, and are forbidden to have contact with one another.

TDCJ Inspector General John Moriarty says his office investigated the matter and reviewed a number of phone calls Halprin’s wife made to the prison official while Halprin was in Lew Sterrett. “We looked at allegations that there may have been misconduct on part of TDCJ staff and that was unfounded,” he says. “We also found that the security process could not have been compromised because only two people knew when the transport was going to occur, and it wasn’t any of the parties involved in that conversation.”

Dallas County Sheriff’s personnel also were investigated internally for lapses in their security procedures. Halprin wrote on his website, via his wife, that he was “amazed” at the treatment in Sterrett, by how different it was when he was awaiting trial seven years ago. “It’s worlds apart from the last time I was in Dallas County Jail,” he wrote in a journal entry dated August 21. “They’ve all been very cool and respectful. I’ve just been amazed at the treatment. I’ve been able to go everywhere without handcuffs or shackles. It’s a freeing feeling, and I wish death row was the same way.”

Halprin, who could make unlimited calls from a phone that was brought to his cell on a cart, was able to go around the jail’s telephone security procedures by using other prisoners’ code numbers, which he somehow obtained, official say. He was on the phone to Crystal constantly, running up to the 15-minute call limit, then calling again. Crystal Halprin, a 37-year-old bookkeeper in Manchaca, Texas, apparently footed the bill. She married the 33-year-old inmate after he was under a death sentence.

There were more instances of security lapses involving Dallas County Sheriff’s personnel assigned as bailiffs to Judge Rick Magnis’ court. For a hearing Halprin attended on August 20, no additional security measures were taken, and no additional personnel were assigned to the court. Present were just two bailiffs described as “an older male and an older female.”

In a phone call to his wife, Halprin said security was so loose that it was “insane.” After prosecutors complained to the sheriff’s department, more security guards were assigned and a metal detector placed at the courtroom door for a second hearing on September 30. But even then, a bailiff allowed Crystal Halprin to bypass the metal detector. Halprin’s wife later told him on a recorded call that she and a bailiff had discussed going to lunch together.

Both bailiffs were reassigned this fall, pending outcome of an internal affairs investigation, according to several sources. But the Sheriff’s Department continued to give unlimited use of the telephone to high-risk prisoners up from death row for court hearings. After arriving in the jail on November 22, death row inmate Jedidiah Murphy made 240 phone calls in his first week in Dallas’ jail, sources say. Murphy was convicted of the 2000 kidnapping and murder of a 79-year-old Garland woman.

“How are you supposed to keep track if there’s a blizzard of conversations?” Moore asks. “Who is going to listen to them all?”

Complaints from the District Attorney’s Office following Murphy’s phone calls prompted the Sheriff’s Department to begin limiting phone calls, a source with knowledge of the matter says. A Sheriff’s Department spokesperson was preparing a response to questions about Halprin’s jail stay and did not have an immediate comment for D Magazine.

Moore says of the entire episode, “You know, it offends me because this is someone who broke out of prison and killed a good man. Now here they are sweet-talking their way, making buds with people who oversee security. I have a real problem with that.”

Update (1/19/11, 10:30 a.m.): Sheriff’s spokeswoman Kimberlee Leach says the department began reviewing inmate phone privileges “to determine if stricter guidelines can be implemented.” She does not confirm that procedural changes have been made. She also disputes Halprin’s contention that he was given more freedom in the jail. “He was immediately classified as ‘high risk’ and placed in a single cell where his daily activities were restricted,” she says in a written response to questions. Also, Leachsays that Halprin was in leg irons during his court appearances and that two licensed peace officers were present. An internal affairs investigation into their actions at the two Halprin hearings resulted in one complaint sustained while the other was ruled to be unfounded, she says.


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