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Jailhouse rocked by prisoners' escapades

INMATES at a small-town Texas jail had the run of the place, having sex with their jailer girlfriends, bringing in easy chairs, taking drugs and chatting on cell phones supplied by friends or guards.

The jailhouse escapades - some of which date back to 2006, according to authorities - have rocked Montague, a farming and ranching town of several hundred people in the northern part of the state in the United States.

Inmates disabled some of the surveillance cameras and made weapons out of nails. The doors to two groups of cells didn't lock, but apparently no one tried to escape - perhaps because they had everything they needed inside.

There were whispers in the past year about an affair between a female jailer and male inmate, but people dismissed the rumors as gossip. It was not until late last month, when a Texas grand jury returned a 106-count indictment against the former sheriff and 16 others, that the inmates-gone-wild scandal came to light.

The indictment charged Bill Keating, sheriff from 2004 until December, with official oppression and having sex with female inmates. The others indicted include nine guards - seven women and two men - who were charged with offenses involving sex or drugs and other contraband. Four inmates were also charged.

Local, state and federal authorities are still trying to figure out how the jail was turned into something like a party house.

The new sheriff, Paul Cunningham, said he was stunned while touring the jail for the first time just hours after being sworn in on January 1.

He saw partitions made of paper towels that blocked jailers' view into cells, and pills scattered around.

Cunningham immediately ordered the jail closed and moved the nearly 60 inmates to another institution.

"It literally scared me - not for myself but for the employees," Cunningham said. "How somebody kept from being killed was beyond me."

Cunningham, who defeated Keating in the Republican primary last spring, suggested Keating lost interest in the jail after that.

Separately, Keating, 62, faces up to 10 years in federal prison after pleading guilty in January to charges he coerced a woman into having sex with him by threatening to jail her.

The jail will reopen this week following about US$1 million in repairs, needed after years of damage by inmates, Cunningham said.

The department is also getting new uniforms, badges and vehicles. "I just think this office needs to change its image completely," the new sheriff said.


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