AUSTIN (AP) -- Texas prison officials are monitoring inmates at the state's 114 prisons for signs that outsiders are trying to recruit them into terrorism or that inmates themselves are working contacts outside prison for illegal purposes, including terrorism.
"Our interest is the security of our institutions and the safety of the public," John Moriarty, inspector general of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told the Austin American-Statesman for a story in Saturday's editions. "We have had some successes. That's about all I can say."
The secretive program grew out of a videotape received nearly two years ago at the Beto Unit, a prison outside Palestine in East Texas. The tape that intrigued a Texas warden showed a Muslim imam in California reading from the Quran, preaching a "Message to the Oppressed."
On the tape, Imam Al-Hajj Muhammad Abdullah suggested that al Qaeda terrorists were not responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and instead blamed the illuminati, international bankers, Zionism, fascism, imperialism, even the military-industrial complex, the American-Statesman reported.
"This is a war against Islam and Muslims," he said of the U.S. response after the attacks. Prison officials seized the tape after a Muslim coordinator questioned its political content and alerted the warden.
Texas officials increased their monitoring of prisoners for terrorist ties after the Sept. 11 attacks. More than a year ago, assisted by the FBI, they expanded those efforts to include more sophisticated examination of inmates' correspondence and activities.
"We know that inmates are particularly vulnerable to recruitment by terrorists and that we must guard against the spread of terrorism and extremist ideologies," Harley Lappin, director of the federal Bureau of Prisons, told a congressional committee on terrorism and homeland security last month.
Officials declined to elaborate on the Texas program's "successes," other than to say one involved a former Iraqi soldier, another involved a Texas group targeted by federal officials for its alleged terrorist organization ties, and another involved an outside radical group. In one case, a state prisoner in El Paso claimed to be an al Qaeda member -- a claim debunked by investigators.
As many as 300 letters a week written in Arabic, Farsi or other Middle Eastern languages are opened, copied and delivered -- with the copy going to the Huntsville office of Bobby Pittman. He scans the letters into his computer system, presses a button and speeds the copies to the FBI, where they are translated and reviewed.
"Most are 'Dear John' letters, talking about 'How's the wife and kids?' and things like that," Pittman said. "If there's information in the correspondence that warrants further action, then we might go out and interview inmates or do additional investigation."
State officials say inmates under scrutiny aren't just Middle Eastern or Muslim.
"We focus on those who we have information about or who we have reason to believe could be security threats -- inside and out," Moriarty said.
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Just 150 imprisoned Texas felons are of Middle Eastern descent -- a tiny fraction of the 150,000 total prisoners. However, the state's population of 7,600 Muslim inmates is among the largest in the nation.