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Published on NewsOK Modified: April 24, 2014 at 5:03 pm •  Published: April 24, 2014
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The convicted heroin dealer wanted some cigarettes, Cool Ranch Doritos, Jolly Ranchers, meals from McDonald's, deodorant, a toothbrush - and a cellphone to call his girlfriend.

A civilian jailer at the Harris County jail filled the order and later collected a $25 fee from the inmate's girlfriend. Jailer Branden C. Paez allegedly had a similar deal with two other inmates that included bringing in home-cooked meals.

On Wednesday, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia announced charges against Paez, 20, of Spring, the fifth civilian jailer charged in recent months with bringing a variety of contraband into the Harris County jail system. Paez, charged with bringing contraband into a correctional facility, had been on the job 13 months when Garcia fired him in September.

The charges against Paez and the other four jailers raise questions about the screening process used by Garcia to hire the 1,300 full-time and part-time civilian jailers, who along with 165 deputies guard nearly 9,000 inmates in the county's jails.

County Commissioner Steve Radack, a former law enforcement officer, expressed concern that dangerous inmates could obtain weapons.

''I'm certainly concerned about sheriff's personnel providing contraband inside of the jail, and it's happening frequently enough that there's obviously a big problem that needs to be corrected," Radack said. "There are obviously methods that could be in place to stop this activity. It's unfortunate to think sheriff's personnel working in the jail need to be searched before going to work to prevent taking contraband into the jail such as drugs and cellphones."

Phones long a problem

Smuggling cellphones into jails has been a long-standing problem in Texas prisons, and in 2008 prompted a prison-wide lockdown after death row inmates made thousands of calls with smuggled phones. One condemned inmate called state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, to say that he knew where the lawmaker's children lived.

In February 2013, federal agents arrested 13 guards at the McConnell Unit in Beeville on charges that they took bribes to smuggle drugs and cellphones into the state prison.

In addition to Paez, The four Harris County civilian jailers recently arrested were:

1 Lauren N. Sandefer, 25, charged April 14 with smuggling tobacco and vodka into the jail and allowing an inmate to use her cellphone.

1 Dominique Duncan, 23, charged Feb. 12 with possession of controlled substance with intent to deliver prescription painkillers to inmates.

1 Gertudis A. Reyes, 21, also charged in February with smuggling tobacco into the jail.

1 Tamara Bundage, 26, of Brookshire, sentenced in March to 15 days in jail and probation for smuggling tobacco and two cellphones into the jail.

The arrests of county jailers are not the only recent embarrassing charges brought against Garcia's employees.

In March, a veteran deputy on a game room task force was fired, accused of stealing money he seized during a raid.

Get 'what we pay for'

The head of the Harris County Deputies' Organization blamed the jailer arrests on limited benefits given civilian jailers, whose starting pay is $16.21 an hour, or $33,700 annually.

''I hate to say it but we're kind of getting what we pay for," said Robert Goerlitz, president of the deputies organization. "The problem is we have little to nothing to offer these people when they first come into employment."

Goerlitz said civilian jailers in Harris County do not get full-time benefits such as health coverage for the first six months on the job and must pay for private parking at the downtown jail.

Zero tolerance

Garcia has said the smuggling of contraband has forced some changes.

''One, 99 percent of our jail staffers do a great job in difficult circumstances, guarding almost 9,000 inmates in the nation's third largest jail," according to a news statement from Garcia. "Two, we have zero tolerance for law enforcement employees who decide to break the law instead of enforce it."

Now, jail guards cannot bring personal cellphones into the jail without permission. Heavy bags, such as backpacks, are forbidden. Also, they can be searched at random.