- Joined Feb 24, 2005
Inmate slipped out of prison to buy cigarettes, officials say
Cliffnotes: Inmate escaped more than 70 times to buy cigarettes and other contraband from Walmart... and then returned to prison.Coming on the heels of the latest round of official claims that Texas prisons have been made more secure was this news Monday: A convicted burglar who was supposed to be confined to a lockup near Houston went shopping last week for cigarettes and smokeless tobacco at an all-night discount center.
Prison officials never knew he was gone.
And after they were tipped to the late-night trip, officials confirmed Monday, they had to verify the escape by viewing the store's surveillance camera system — which was much better than the one the prison has.
Authorities said they were investigating reports that Skyler Steddum, 19, might have made as many as 70 such shopping tripsfrom Sugar Land's Central Unit, where he was a trusty in a part of the prison without fences.
It was the latest security breach in Texas prisons since officials promised improved security 16 months ago, after a death-row convict used a smuggled cell phone to call a state senator.
"He went out on Tuesday. We didn't find out about it until Friday night, when somebody inside the prison snitched him off,"said John Moriarty, inspector general for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, who is overseeing the investigation. "He bought smokeless tobacco and cigarettes. I don't know how much."
Cigarettes, tobacco products and cash — which officials said Steddum used to make the purchases at a Walmart across from the prison — are illegal in Texas prisons.
On Monday, the Central Unit was undergoing a cell-by-cell shakedown to determine what other contraband might be inside.
According to prison officials, Steddum — who is serving a four-year sentence for a home burglary and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle in Nueces County — made the shopping trip to Walmart from the trusty camp where he was assigned. The camp, which is outside the main prison yard, houses about 300 convicts who are classified as minimum-security.
Moriarty said Steddum was wearing "free world clothing" at the time of his Walmart purchases to escape attention. Others who had been briefed on the inquiry said he had dyed his white prison uniform tan with coffee.
Officials at the prison were unaware that Steddum was missing on Tuesday, Moriarty said, even though trusties, like other convicts, are supposed to be closely supervised and counted every few hours to verify that they are present — even in the middle of the night.
He said investigators also want to know where Steddum got cash to buy the items.
Without the Walmart footage showing Steddum in the store, officials said, they might have had trouble confirming that he slipped out.
For a prison system that has been buffeted with security missteps, Monday's disclosures quickly triggered renewed criticism.
Last November, a convict in a wheelchair escaped from a high-security unit near Huntsville — arguably the top security spot besides death row — after overpowering two guards with a smuggled pistol.
An independent assessment made public just days ago said the system's current security measures and policies were appropriate.
"For a system that's had cell phones on death row, that had a loaded pistol turn up in a maximum-security unit and was used in an escape, that has contraband problems that continue despite what we're told are security improvements, now we have a convict going on a shopping trip without anyone even knowing he was gone," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the chairman of the committee that supervises the state prison system and the senator who received the call from death row.
"It might be funny if it weren't so absurd. People shopping at a Walmart shouldn't have to worry that the person standing next to them in line is supposed to be in a prison.
"And the fact that Walmart has better security cameras than our prisons, well, this whole situation begs a whole lot of questions.
"People need to be held accountable for these security lapses that just keep happening."
Prison spokeswoman Michelle Lyons said Steddum, who has been incarcerated since August, was eligible for parole a year from now. Other officials said he will now likely not be eligible.
Moriarty said policies regarding trusties and how they are supervised are being reviewed as a part of the investigation.