by David M. Reutter
About 130 people have been arrested following a joint two-year investigation by the FBI and the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC). Indictments for 75 of the arrestees were announced in September 2015; another 46 indictments, all involving current or former prison employees, were reported in February 2016. [See: PLN, March 2017, p.38].
Known as “Operation Ghost Guard,” the investigation targeted contraband in GDOC facilities and crimes perpetuated by prisoners through cell phones and outside accomplices.
“The indictments allege that inmates managed and directed a number of fraud schemes that victimized citizens from across the country from within the Georgia prison system using contraband cell phones,” said John A. Horn, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.
State prisoner Kevin Patterson, reportedly a member of the Ghost Face Gang who trafficked meth and heroin prior to his incarceration, was busted after state and federal law enforcement officials, relying on a confidential source, recorded him directing the sale of tens of thousands of dollars in drugs from his cell in July 2015, using a cell phone.
“The unfortunate common denominator to this criminal conduct,” Horn noted, “is the pervasive availability of contraband cell phones, which allows too many prison inmates to continue victimizing our communities while serving their sentences.”
“We were here three weeks ago at a press conference very similar to this,” GDOC Commissioner Homer Bryson said in February 2016. “Since that press conference, in three weeks, we’ve seized 629 cell phones. One inmate would refer a source to a second, or third, or fourth inmate who was engaged in the same conduct, who would then refer to a corrections officer who was willing to bring contraband.”
By the end of 2016, the GDOC had seized 22,326 cell phones from prisoners and visitors at the state’s 67 correctional facilities, which include secure and lower-level facilities. Ware State Prison, where Patterson was housed, topped the list with 1,392 cell phones found. Another 1,342 were confiscated at Dooly State Prison. Officials don’t know how Patterson secured his cell phone, but there are many ways to get them in.
Low-paid guards and other prison staff smuggle the phones for a price, despite the risk that they could face prosecution and end up behind bars themselves. Prisoners’ friends and family members throw packages over prison fences. And increasingly there are hard-to-detect drones making contraband drops.
In July 2017, a drone flew over the grounds of Washington State Prison in southeast Georgia and landed on the roof of one of the buildings. GDOC public affairs director Joan Heath said the drone was carrying a package that contained four Samsung Galaxy cell phones, two bags containing 7.8 ounces of tobacco, one USB charger cable, 16 bags of marijuana and 31 oxycodone pills.
“During the first six months of this year, more than 35 drones have been spotted and/or confiscated. GDOC considers drones a serious threat to the safe and secure operations of our facilities,” she added.
To combat these smuggling tactics, the GDOC has installed infrared cameras to detect people approaching fences, where they might throw packages over. It is also erecting 40-foot nets – much like the screens that protect baseball fans from fly balls – to stop drone deliveries.
Additionally, state prison officials have spent $2.25 million at three facilities to install systems that intercept cell phone signals and quickly drain phone batteries. But prisoners can still find areas where the blocking system doesn’t reach.
Technology exists that would allow prison officials to jam cell phone signals on a large scale, so even if phones are smuggled in they wouldn’t work. But authorities have been hampered by a longstanding ban on the jamming technology by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), as it could also affect homes and businesses located near prisons.
The Association of State Correctional Administrators asked the FCC to reconsider its position in March 2017, and dozens of members of Congress have also weighed in on the issue. The FCC’s newly-appointed chairman, Ajit Pai, has indicated he is receptive to the idea of allowing cell phone jamming for security reasons.
“I share your concerns about the proliferation of contraband wireless devices in prisons and the potentially devastating implications for public safety,” Pai wrote in an October 24, 2017 letter to U.S. Rep. David Kustoff. “We continue our efforts to push for even better procedures and solutions for this very serious problem.”
There is also technology to address drone deliveries, but it’s expensive. Oleg Vornik is the CEO of Drone Shield, a company that markets anti-drone systems. The cost is $150,000 to $200,000 per year per prison, depending on the size of the facility and the approach taken. Some systems will pick up the sound of a drone and alert prison officials; others force a drone to the ground or divert it, Vornik explained.
Clay Nix, deputy director of the GDOC’s Office of Professional Standards, said some prisoners have boasted of making $5,000 to $10,000 in a day by selling contraband cell phones, tobacco, marijuana and other drugs.
Rival gangs are willing to work together in prison “because there’s so much money to be made,” added GDOC Assistant Commissioner Ricky Myrick, who oversees the operation of the state’s prisons, halfway houses and other facilities.
The indictments announced by Horn’s office between September 2015 and February 2016 charged guards, prisoners and civilians with wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, bribery, smuggling contraband and extortion.
In January 2017, Kevin Patterson was sentenced to 18 years and four months in federal prison. Sinaloa Cartel member Alex Altamirano, who was also held in a Georgia state prison, received ten years. And Denis Pineda, a member of the East Side Locos on parole after serving time for a drive-by shooting, was sentenced to 12 years and 7 months. All had been implicated in prison drug dealing, fraud schemes or contraband smuggling.
Those were not the only drug traffickers operating from within Georgia’s prison system. Operation Ghost Guard also uncovered a meth operation run by prisoners at three different facilities. Indicted were Francisco Palacias Baras at Hancock State Prison, Jonathan Corey McLoon at Valdosta State Prison and Christopher Wayne Hildebrand at the Coastal Transition Center. Each was charged with obtaining cell phones and managing a drug network. Fourteen civilians, including one parolee, were also charged.
Further, indictments were issued for guards and prisoners at Autry State Prison, Baldwin State Prison, Dooly State Prison, Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison, Macon State Prison, Pulaski State Prison and the GEO Group-owned Riverbend Correctional Facility.
In some cases, prisoners used contraband cell phones to access the Internet to identify the names, addresses and phone numbers of potential fraud victims.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Georgia announced in January 2016 that the FBI had conducted an investigation with Georgia prison officials that led to the arrests of 51 people, including 19 prisoners and 15 guards, on wire fraud and money laundering charges.
The initial investigation centered on Autry State Prison, a medium-security facility that houses about 1,700 prisoners. But federal authorities said later in 2016 that the investigation had spread with the arrests of dozens of corrections employees who allegedly smuggled contraband into other state prisons and accepted bribes to protect drug deals that were part of a federal undercover operation. The total number of arrests eventually reached around 130.
Of the 51 initial arrests at Autry State Prison, 32 cases remained open as of June 2017. Seven of the 15 guards pleaded guilty, with five being placed on probation and two receiving prison terms up to 18 months. Seven of the 19 prisoners and former prisoners pleaded guilty or were convicted. One parolee, Reggie Perkins, 36, was sentenced to 12 years and seven months in federal prison on August 22, 2016, after authorities said he admitted to laundering $1 million in illegal proceeds from a fraud scheme run from state prisons.
By August 2017, all of the 46 GDOC guards who were indicted in February 2016 had been sentenced; all except two received federal prison terms, which ranged from 18 to 114 months. The last guard to be sentenced, Tramaine Tucker, who had been employed at GEO Group’s Riverbend Correctional Facility, received five years in prison.
“It’s troubling that so many officers from state correctional institutions across Georgia were willing to sell their badges for personal payoffs from purported drug dealers,” said U.S. Attorney Horn.
Despite the arrests and convictions, prison officials acknowledge that the use of smart phones and other technology by prisoners and their outside accomplices is a game of “cat and mouse” – one they are not yet winning. From January to August 2017, GDOC officials seized nearly 5,000 contraband cell phones.
Sources: Associated Press, Atlanta Journal Constitution, www.abcnews.go.com, www.41nbc.com, www.justice.gov
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