by David M. Reutter
A “dirty staff gang” of corrupt employees in North Carolina’s prison system is circumventing security measures by smuggling contraband that creates dangers not only for prisoners and staff members, but also for people in the community who have been the victims of criminal plots.
North Carolina has about 8,000 prison guards, of whom 1,800 to 2,000 are new hires in any given year. The high turnover rate is driven at least in part by low wages. The national average pay for a guard is $47,000, but thanks to the rural locations of most North Carolina prisons, guards average $32,000 annually at minimum-security facilities and $35,000 at maximum-security facilities.
“These officers are broke,” said Troy Person, who served 20 years on multiple counts of forgery at the Scotland Correctional Institution (SCI). “That’s why there are so many cell phones in prison.”
Person said he paid two guards to smuggle him cell phones, liquor, condoms, pornography and marijuana, all of which he sold to other prisoners.
The contraband trade can be lucrative inside prisons, where a pound of marijuana is worth more than $9,000 and a smartphone can go for $700.
Former SCI prisoner Timothy Ray Jones started his prison drug ring with an inexpensive flip phone he bought for $150. He enlisted two female guards, and they developed a secret code to ensure the drugs they smuggled would not be detected.
For every pound of marijuana the two guards brought in, Jones paid them each $700, twice a month for two years – enough to provide each guard with an extra $17,000 annually.
“In prison,” Jones said, “money talks.”
But when prison gangs battle over control of the contraband trade, things can turn deadly – especially when prison staff is collaborating with one of the gangs. That is what investigators suspected in the September 2012 murder of Wesley “Thug Life” Turner, 35, at the Lanesboro Correctional Institution (LCI). [See: PLN, Jan. 2013, p.50].
Surveillance video from the morning of September 29, 2012 showed Jeffery Wall in his office with two prisoners who were reportedly members of the MS-13 gang. Wall, 45, was one of LCI’s four unit managers, each responsible for overseeing a cellblock of about 300 prisoners.
Over the next 17 minutes, video recorded the two gang members – Julio Zelaya-Sorto, 49, and Joel “Sour” Ortiz, 35 – as they met with members of the United Blood Nation gang that Wall invited in. The video did not capture the meeting; it only showed the comings and goings from Wall’s office.
It was not clear where Zelaya-Sorto and Ortiz went immediately after the meeting, but a short time later they could be seen walking down a hallway with fellow gang member Gregorio Vazquez, 32. They were carrying weapons.
Prisoner Christopher Cook, 41, a leader of the Folk Nation gang who had heard rumors of escalating tensions, saw the three waiting outside his cellblock. He asked two other prisoners to lend him a weapon, but they refused. As a rookie guard unlocked the cellblock door from a control booth, the three MS-13 gang members entered. On their heels followed Turner, arriving to defend his friend, Cook.
Cook and Turner stood shoulder to shoulder, unarmed but braced for an attack. Zalaya-Sorto was seen on the video pulling a shank from his jumpsuit and lunging at Cook. Ortiz also produced a shank and started slashing at Cook.
On the right side of the video frame, another fight erupted as Vazquez stabbed Turner 13 times with a shank. The guard in the booth radioed for help and staff members sprinted in 40 seconds after the fight started, led by Wall. The three MS-13 members were cornered, but Vazquez had to be pepper-sprayed and hit with batons before he stopped stabbing Turner, who then bled to death on the floor.
An investigation began within an hour. State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) agent Audria Bridges, 46, had been to LCI numerous times before Turner’s murder. Most of those investigations involved guards who were charged with introducing drugs into the prison. As she investigated Turner’s death, she wondered where the shanks used in the attack had gone. Only one was recovered.
Prisoners she interviewed said one of the weapons was a “real long knife,” another resembled a razor and the third was a sharpened toilet bowl brush. Guard Kearry Hinson, 40, told investigators he picked up one of the weapons used in the fight and gave it to Wall. Former LCI guard Phillip Boney, 39, said Wall “put a shank inside an unlocked wooden podium near the cellblock” – a violation of policy that requires potential criminal evidence, such as weapons, to be secured in a locked container in the armory.
Just three hours after Turner’s murder, Wall made a gesture that convinced investigators he knew about or had sanctioned the attack.
Vazquez was in a nurse’s office when Wall and another LCI unit manager walked down the hallway outside. Surveillance video showed Wall turning and looking directly into the room where Vazquez was seated. He stretched his arms high and wide above his head, then brought his arms down and covered his mouth. The message was clear to investigators and Vazquez’s attorney: Keep your mouth shut.
“Mr. Wall and the Blood Nation Gang likely ordered this to happen,” said Vazquez’s lawyer, Daniel Roberts. “If not ordered it, at least knew it was going to happen.”
Wall’s gesture, he added, was a signal to “not give any statement, for them to not talk about what had happened.”
Vazquez never gave investigators or his attorneys a statement.
“It’s odd that [gang members] are meeting with Wall minutes before the attack,” said Jeremy Smith, another of Vazquez’s attorneys. “And with Wall’s signal after the fact, telling [Vazquez] essentially to be quiet, I don’t know what other inference you can draw from it.”
As the investigation into Turner’s death progressed, Wall was transferred to another facility. But he apparently became concerned about evidence being found in his former office. So he called SBI agent Bridges, who along with a prison captain conducted a search.
In the ceiling, they found a bag that contained videos of prison fights, nine rods, a long metal shank and three bloody shanks. Later that afternoon, Wall arrived at the LCI parking lot. He was upset and had a gun visible in his car – another violation of prison policy.
“They have nothing to worry about,” Wall said, according to a report, “because if I wanted to get anyone I could get them touched from the outside.”
When asked about the shanks hidden in the ceiling, Wall said he was going to put them in a display case to train new guards – something Bridges said “didn’t seem logical.”
But connecting the shanks to Turner’s murder was further impeded when LCI staff refused to open Cook’s cell for investigators to obtain DNA evidence. As a result, no charges were brought against Wall.
“I didn’t have enough cooperation to connect the dots,” Bridges admitted.
Vazquez, who was serving a sentence for second-degree murder, pleaded guilty to another second-degree murder charge for killing Turner. Zelaya-Sorto and Ortiz pleaded guilty to assault with a deadly weapon. Both were also already serving time for second-degree murder – Zelayo-Sorto for shooting and killing another man at a Greensboro nightclub, Ortiz for killing someone in a road rage incident on a Raleigh freeway.
In 2014, David Mitchell was brought in as LCI’s new warden. He was attacked by prisoners three times in the first eight months; once he was stabbed in the neck with a knife made from melted plastic. Before he left in 2016 to become a regional director overseeing 15 prisons, he told the Observer: “I’m certain there are people involved with gang activity that work there.”
The corruption at LCI creates the “worst kind of gang in the state ... the ‘Dirty Staff Gang,’” Boney, the former guard, wrote in a 2013 letter sent anonymously to Governor Pat McCrory, state prison leaders and SBI investigators. Boney – who has since claimed authorship of the letter – said his fear was that incidents like Turner’s murder could go another way, and the next time “it could be one of us officers” who is killed.
Boney was fired in 2015 for insubordination, but he believes his complaints about corruption contributed to his dismissal. He has gone back to being a school teacher for less pay, and gives no thought to being a prison guard again.
“It ain’t worth it,” he stated.
Guards willing to engage in extralegal activities, however, find it very lucrative to work in the prison system. A former Pasquotank Correctional Institution prisoner said he and another prisoner paid a warehouse supervisor $8,000 to help smuggle in four hollowed-out printers, each holding about 15 cell phones and five pounds of tobacco.
A prisoner at the Odom Correctional Institution said he paid a female guard $2,500 every two weeks for two years to bring in packages containing 10 cell phones and a pound of marijuana.
“To get the big stuff into the prison, you have to go through staff,” he said.
While many prisoners use contraband cell phones to keep in touch with their family members and friends at a lower cost than using the prison phone system, and to access the Internet, some use them to extort “rent” from the families of other prisoners.
Myra Nance-Pastore said she received such a call at her North Carolina home, demanding $700 per month to ensure her wheelchair-bound son would not be hurt while incarcerated. She notified prison officials, and the gang member who tried to extort her was transferred to another facility.
In a plot hatched by United Blood Nation gang leader Kelvin Melton while he was in solitary confinement at the Polk Correctional Institution, shortly after his conviction for first-degree murder was affirmed in March 2014 by an appellate court, he was able to get three guards – one of whom was a Blood member – to bring him contraband, including a cell phone.
Contriving to kill the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, Melton used the cell phone to contact Blood gang members on the street, instructing them how to kill her, get rid of the body and clean up the crime scene.
The gang members, however, made a mistake on April 5, 2014: They went to the home of the prosecutor’s father, Frank Janssen. They stunned him with a Taser, then pistol-whipped and kidnapped him. Melton was on the phone with them as they loaded Janssen into a car.
He ordered that Janssen be taken to an Atlanta apartment where he was handcuffed, taped to a chair and locked in a closet for four days. Using his contraband cell phone, Melton dictated texts to be sent to Janssen’s wife and ordered gang members to kill him, along with the apartment’s owner and his girlfriend.
Investigators were able to track the text messages and calls from the kidnappers. They rescued Janssen on April 9, 2014, and the gang members were convicted and received prison terms ranging from 20 to more than 50 years. [See: PLN, Dec. 2014, p.56].
At Melton’s trial, Larry Dunston, North Carolina’s former assistant superintendent of security services, said he asked Melton about the cell phone.
“He was explaining to me that there was more of my people on his side than his people on my side, meaning our correctional staff were involved with him,” Dunston testified.
Melton is now serving his sentence at the federal ADX supermax facility in Colorado, along with other prisoners the government deems to be security threats.
“The very idea of prison is to cut people off from society – cell phones undo that,” noted Martin Horn, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. “Cell phones make prison walls obsolete.”
Yet illicit phones flourish behind bars. One time, a single sweep of LCI resulted in the confiscation of over 100 cell phones.
“I can promise you there were three times that number that weren’t found,” said Rufus Carter, a former guard at the facility.
Some blame the prison system for hiring people with questionable backgrounds.
“I don’t think their screening process is catching all the ones they need to catch,” remarked Polkton Police Chief Matthew Norris. “The whole [hiring] system needs an overhaul.”
While North Carolina’s prison system requires guards to demonstrate “good moral behavior” while employed, that does not seem to apply when they are hired. Brent Soucier was dismissed as a Vermont guard in 1997 after he was convicted of assault for cocking a semi-automatic handgun and holding it so hard against a man’s head that his ear bled. Four months later he was hired as a North Carolina prison guard. Soucier was named in a 2013 lawsuit brought by eight prisoners at the Central Prison for beating them while they were handcuffed, in areas without video cameras.
The Observer found that, since 2012, at least 70 guards have been charged with crimes committed while on the job and another 50 for felonies committed outside prison. Over 65 guards were fired for having inappropriate relationships with prisoners; more than 400 were terminated for on-the-job misconduct. Many others resigned while under investigation.
“It bothers every person in this room when we find or hear of a staff member who has been compromised,” said David Guice, North Carolina’s Chief Deputy Secretary for Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice. “We’ve got to do a better job on the front end of hiring. There is no question.”
The hiring issue continues to be tied to the low pay that guards receive. While a recent state law makes it a felony for prison staff members to give a cell phone to a prisoner, or for a prisoner to possess one, phones continue to flood the prison system. Corrections officials confiscated 556 contraband cell phones in 2015 and 535 in 2016. Yet only two people have been charged under the law.
“It’s sad to say, a lot of times I would trust gang members before I would trust my co-workers,” stated former prison guard Chesenna Ray. “There’s so much corruption. Nobody knows who to trust.”
In October 2017, Guice announced he was stepping down at the end of the month. He had been in the position since 2013, earning $132,500 annually to oversee the state’s 37,000 prisoners. In December 2017, Judge Reuben Young, 60, assumed the role of interim director.
State Public Safety Secretary Erik Hooks has announced upgrades to security cameras and fencing at North Carolina correctional facilities to combat the spread of contraband. Also, under a new policy, almost everyone entering a prison will be subject to a frisk search.
Beyond the problems with contraband, the Observer identified another negative effect of low pay for guards: Because they work second jobs or overtime to make ends meet, 45 staff members were fired between 2012 and 2016 for sleeping on the job. Sometimes they were asleep while armed with loaded guns in reach of prisoners, at other times they were in control rooms where they were supposed to be watching for the sort of violence that left Wesley Turner dead at LCI.
Sources: The Charlotte Observer, www.governing.com
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