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Mississippi Indictments Illustrate Prison Phone Corruption

Mississippi Indictments Illustrate Prison Phone Corruption

by Derek Gilna

Two Mississippi businessmen, Irb Benjamin, 69, and Sam Waggoner, 61, face federal charges in connection with a scheme in which kickbacks were paid to former Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) Commissioner Christopher B. Epps in return for the awarding of state and county contracts to Mississippi Correctional Management (MCM) and Global Tel*Link (GTL).

According to court documents, Waggoner, a paid consultant for GTL, the nation’s largest prison phone service provider, received from the company “five (5) percent of all revenue generated by the inmate telephone services contracts it had with the state of Mississippi.”

In turn, Waggoner allegedly provided bribes to Epps. According to federal prosecutors, “Specifically, on or about July 30, 2014, and on or about August 26, 2014, the defendant, Sam Waggoner, paid kickbacks in the form of cash generated by his monthly commission from GTL to Christopher B. Epps,” in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(2).

Prisoners’ rights advocates, including the Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), the parent organization and publisher of Prison Legal News, have long been critical of phone contracts entered into between companies like GTL and corrections agencies that force prisoners and their families to pay exorbitant phone rates. HRDC/PLN have been instrumental in persuading the Federal Communications Commission to rein in some of the worse abuses in the prison phone industry, and additional FCC reforms, including rate caps on in-state calls, are expected soon.

PLN has long maintained that the lucrative nature of prison phone contracts and enormous amounts of money involved are tempting inducements for unscrupulous for-profit companies and greedy corrections officials. PLN has cited several examples of such corruption in comments filed with the FCC.

GTL’s current prison phone contract with the MDOC, signed by Epps in 2011, runs until 2016. Previously, PLN had to sue both GTL and the MDOC to obtain a copy of the state’s prison phone contract. [See: PLN, April 2011, p.1].

The indictment of MCM president and former state senator Irb Benjamin alleges that he paid Epps to assist MCM in obtaining contracts with Alcorn, Washington and Chickasaw counties worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. MCM provided consulting services and also operated the counties’ jails. Benjamin resigned as warden of the Alcorn County Regional Correctional Facility on December 1, 2014, following several escapes.

Further, Carter Gobal Lee Facility Management (CGL) hired Benjamin to consult on a 2014 MDOC maintenance contract worth $4.8 million that Epps negotiated. Epps reportedly used his influence to require CGL to hire Benjamin, who in return gave him monthly kickbacks.

According to the FBI, Benjamin also “gave Epps bribes and kickbacks in exchange for Epps awarding or directing the awarding of MDOC contracts or work to Benjamin’s company ... [MCM], to provide alcohol and drug treatment services to inmates at MDOC work centers in Alcorn and Simpson Counties.”

In a press release announcing the criminal charges against Waggoner and Benjamin, the FBI decried such public corruption, stating “society will not tolerate bribery, kickbacks, or other ‘under-the-table’ deals.”

The amount of revenue generated from prison telephone contracts must be enormous, despite claims by phone companies that they earn only modest profits; in Mississippi, not only was GTL paying the MDOC a “commission” kickback of 60% of prison phone revenue, it also paid another 5% to Waggoner, with some of that money going to Epps in the form of bribes.

In August 2015, Waggoner pleaded guilty and agreed to forfeit $200,000 as part of his plea agreement. Benjamin and Waggoner face maximum prison sentences of between 10 and 20 years on the bribery and conspiracy charges. Both remain free on bond. See: United States v. Waggoner, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 3:15-cr-00069; State v. Benjamin, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), 3:15-cr-00067.

Former MDOC Commissioner Epps, who resigned on November 1, 2014, and former state Rep. Cecil McCrory pleaded guilty to federal bribery-related charges earlier this year and await sentencing. Epps had also served as president of the American Correctional Association (ACA).

“We will hold accountable under the law everyone who bears the responsibility of public service and sells the trust that has been bestowed upon them,” said acting U.S. Attorney Harold Brittain.

Sources: FBI press release,, The Clarion-Ledger


Related legal cases

United States v. Waggoner

United States v. Benjamin