The Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) has had a rough couple of years. Through several rounds of law enforcement stings and federal indictments, scores of prison employees, prisoners and outside collaborators have been charged for their alleged roles in schemes to smuggle and benefit from a lucrative trade in contraband. This black market, asserted federal authorities, traded in liquor, tobacco, illicit drugs, prescription drugs and, perhaps most importantly, cell phones. According to authorities, cell phones have been integral in the commission of fraud and identity theft, as well as in the orchestration of other criminal activity from behind prison walls.
In February 2016, the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia announced indictments related to illicit contraband smuggling against 46 active and former GDC guards, two outside collaborators and one prisoner. The indictments included charges related to the importation of contraband into nine GDC facilities around the state.
The FBI, based on long-term investigations that resulted in the indictments, alleged that several GDC officers had essentially rented out their law enforcement credentials, taking thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for facilitating and protecting drug deals – actions the guards undertook while in uniform or in possession of their GDC badges. As stated by federal prosecutors, the guards acted as a shield for illicit activity in order to “avoid law enforcement scrutiny.”
The February 2016 announcement claimed that GDC officers had facilitated deals involving “multiple kilograms” of methamphetamine and cocaine. The indictments were only the most recent wave in a back-to-back succession of GDC busts. On January 21, 2016, federal prosecutors issued charges against more than 50 state prison employees, prisoners and outside accomplices. Those charges ran the gamut from conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering to allegations of bribery and contraband smuggling.
Also in January 2016, federal prosecutors charged three GDC prisoners and 14 other individuals in connection with their alleged role in what prosecutors dubbed “a wide-ranging drug trafficking conspiracy that operated within several state prisons.”
Further, speaking to the dangers of illicit cell phones, prosecutors said that by using “contraband cellular telephones inside of the prison, and employing a network of brokers, distributors, and runners outside of prison, [GDC] inmates controlled and managed the distribution of illegal narcotics throughout the Atlanta-metropolitan area and the southeast region of the United States.”
The troubles for GDC began in September 2015, when federal prosecutors charged twelve people with various crimes related to the smuggling of contraband into two Georgia state prisons. The offenses involved drug trafficking, wire fraud, identity theft and extortion.
The first of two indictments involved Valdosta State Prison and a scheme that centered around prisoner Donald Hinley, who relied on prison employees to smuggle cell phones, cigarettes, liquor, prescription pain medication and illegal drugs into the facility.
Guard Anekra Williams was charged with bringing Hinley methamphetamine and prescription meds in exchange for $500. Hinley had instructed his accomplices to package the contraband in a manner that would allow Williams to smuggle it in under her vest.
From August 2014 to April 2015, Hinley allegedly used a contraband cell phone to coordinate a network of drug suppliers and couriers in various areas of Georgia. He once reportedly bragged, “we have good prices and good product.” In another conversation, he instructed a prisoner associate at Telfair State Prison to kill another prisoner he identified as “a snitch” in a state drug case involving Hinley’s girlfriend. The alleged snitch was placed in protective custody upon interception of the call.
The second indictment involved events at Phillips State Prison. Prisoners Mims Morris, Johnathan Silvers and Adam Smith were alleged members of the Ghostface gang, and Morris and Smith were accused of having cell phones while in administrative segregation.
Morris, Silvers and a contract kitchen employee, Charonda Edwards, reportedly coordinated the smuggling of drugs and cell phones into the facility, using other prisoners to move them throughout the prison. Silvers was recorded on a call in segregation saying he had food, cigarettes and marijuana, and expected to receive methamphetamine shortly. He allegedly paid Edwards for her part in the scheme with reloadable prepaid credit cards.
Additionally, with the assistance of outside associates such as Tiffany Allen and Monique Kinney, Morris was able to perpetuate several fraud schemes. In one, he pretended to be from the “Fraudulent Specialist Department” of Discover Card and obtained a woman’s personal information, which he used to transfer $2,200 to his credit card and open additional cards under the woman’s name.
Morris asked Allen to post fraudulent advertisements on Craigslist so people could call him for job interviews on his cell phone. His plan was to obtain personal information in order to obtain debit cards in their names.
Each of the above-named persons was arrested by federal authorities. Also arrested and charged were parolees Ruben Ruiz, William A. Matthews and Kansas Bertollini; all were charged with distribution of, or conspiracy to distribute, at least 50 grams of methamphetamine.
The investigation also uncovered the sale of several fully automatic machine guns. That information was supplied to the FBI by a Georgia prisoner with a cell phone. Tiffany Goodson reportedly called a prisoner at Jenkins Correctional Center and indicated she knew someone who was willing to build and sell the guns. In a sting operation, the FBI arrested Goodson and Robert Burns of South Carolina for selling a fully automatic rifle with the serial number removed.
Following the February 2016 GDC indictments, Atlanta NBC affiliate 11Alive reported that some officials in the Georgia law enforcement community thought GDC employees may have been particularly susceptible to corruption due to their low wages.
“My lead investigator called an inmate at [Autry State Prison] and said, ‘we’re tired of you trying to rip off our people, you need to stop this,’” Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway told 11Alive. “[The prisoner] informed my investigator that he made more money in a day than my investigator makes in a year.”
Similarly, 11Alive quoted a strikingly candid admission from then-Georgia Corrections Commissioner Homer Bryson, who stated, “The honest answer is we’re not able to do thorough enough background checks because we have to hire people at such low salaries that it’s difficult to fill those vacancies.”
Problems with contraband smuggling in Georgia state prisons have continued since the FBI indictments.
In April 2016, a GDC guard was indicted for smuggling contraband though he wasn’t snared by federal investigators; rather, he was busted after an altercation with his girlfriend. Autry State Prison guard Dekel Smith was arguing with Cheryl Riley in the parking lot of a Burger King when Riley reportedly struck him with her car; Smith then fired shots at her using his service pistol. He missed, and was not indicted for firing his weapon. However, he was charged with conspiracy to smuggle drugs and tobacco after he was found with that contraband following the Burger King incident; Smith had reportedly agreed to sneak the items into the prison in exchange for $400. Riley, his girlfriend, was charged with aggravated assault.
Most recently, GDC guard Shantria Robbins was arrested in February 2017 following an investigation at Pulaski State Prison. According to prison officials, she smuggled tobacco into the facility at least 20 times in exchange for $3,000. She was charged with violation of oath by a public official and having items prohibited for possession by inmates.
Sources: www.cnn.com, www.11alive.com, www.justice.gov, www.walb.com
As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login