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South Carolina: Former Prison Employees Charged, Plead Guilty in Contraband Investigation

by David M. Reutter

At least 19 employees from eight different prisons operated by the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDOC) have been convicted or face charges of smuggling drugs, liquor, jewelry or cell phones into the facilities where they worked. [See: PLN, July 2019, p.29]. At the same time, the SCDOC continues to push for jamming cell phone signals in state prisons to prevent their use by prisoners who obtained them illegally.

The biggest bust resulted from a sting called Operation Cash Cow, which uncovered the use of a dairy farm and bakery to smuggle drugs and phones into SCDOC facilities. The first round of arrests was made in November 2018 with a second round in September 2019. A total of 38 people were arrested, including eight guards.

“Nothing is more disappointing in law enforcement than when one of your own crosses the line,” said SCDOC director Bryan Stirling. “When a correctional officer brings contraband into an institution, it breaks the public trust and makes the institution and our state unsafe for everyone. They deserve to spend time behind bars.”

According to the indictment, the contraband included pounds of loose tobacco, cell phones and accessories, marijuana, alcohol, synthetic cannabinoids, methamphetamine, Suboxone, cocaine and crack. The operation was allegedly run by prisoners who “essentially employed people both inside and outside the prisons to assist in obtaining and distributing the contraband.”

Former guard Jeanan Lateefah Dunbar, 41, was the only one whose case went to trial, and a jury found her guilty in July 2019 of possession with intent to distribute marijuana, furnishing contraband to a prisoner and misconduct in office. She was caught in June 2018 attempting to bring a package into the Trenton Correctional Institution that contained 86 grams of methamphetamine, 408 grams of marijuana, blunt wraps and cigars. Dunbar admitted a prisoner had paid her $1,000 to make the delivery. In July 2019, Circuit Court Judge William Keesley sentenced Dunbar to 10 years, suspended to six years in prison and five years of probation.

Four other former guards also face federal prison terms of up to five years after pleading guilty to contraband trafficking charges.

Holly Mitchem and Robert Hill were employed at the Tyger River Correctional Institution. Mitchem was accused of smuggling tobacco and K2, a synthetic cannabinoid, while Hill was charged with introducing marijuana, K2, tobacco and cell phones into the prison. Both pleaded guilty to using an interstate facility to facilitate bribery.

Their September 13, 2019 pleas in federal court were entered the same day that former guards Miguel Williams and Catherine Prosser pleaded guilty. Williams was charged with trying to introduce tobacco and liquor into the Perry Correctional Institution, and he pleaded guilty to using an interstate facility to facilitate bribery. Prosser pleaded guilty to her intent to distribute marijuana in exchange for taking bribes.

In addition to those four former guards, another SCDOC guard, Ebonynisha Casby, pleaded guilty on September 10, 2019 to using an interstate facility to facilitate bribery for trying to smuggle a watch and jewelry into the Lieber Correctional Institution.

Also facing prison time for the same charges at a September 19, 2019 plea hearing is former Ridgeland Correctional Institution (RCI) guard Jamal Early, who was caught trying to sneak tobacco and the synthetic narcotic A-PVP into the prison.

Former guards Frank Pridgeon – who pleaded guilty on September 18, 2019 to honest services wire fraud – and Sharon Johnson Breeland – who entered a guilty plea on August 6, 2019 to possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine – face up to 20 years in federal prison. Pridgeon confessed to taking bribes to smuggle cocaine, marijuana, tobacco and cell phones into RCI, while Breeland was caught trying to smuggle meth into the Broad River Correctional Institution.

In April 2019, former Allendale Correctional Institution guard Joshua Cave, 30, was sentenced to a six-month federal prison term followed by six months of probation and two years of supervised release after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud. Evidence showed that Cave accepted at least ten bribes from prisoners totaling $1,000 to smuggle alcohol into the prison.

Three other former SCDOC employees have pleaded guilty to similar charges. Defendants Douglas Hawkins, Shatara Wilson and Shakeel Malik Monroe await sentencing.

The FBI cooperated with SCDOC Police Services in the criminal cases, which were prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Columbia, overseen by Sherri A. Lydon. She said the cases “should serve as a warning to those employees who would violate the public trust by smuggling contraband into our corrections facilities: If you bring contraband into our prisons, you will end up in prison.”

Yet moving drugs into SCDOC facilities seemed so easy that RCI case worker Steven Allen Washington tried to walk into the prison with a paper bag containing 1995.7 grams of marijuana, 262 ecstasy pills, 29.7 grams of methamphetamine and 9.2 grams of cocaine. He was arrested and faces charges of manufacturing and possession of drugs with intent to distribute, trafficking in more than 100 doses of ecstasy, trafficking in more than 28 grams of meth, possession of cocaine and attempting to furnish contraband to a prisoner.

Despite the fact that it is prison staff smuggling drugs and other contraband, the SCDOC continues to advocate for cell phone jamming.

“Prisons across the country are able to jam cell phones,” SCDOC director Stirling said. “It’s a broken record, and we need people in Washington D.C. to listen to us.”

Cell phone providers have objected to such a practice because it could result in the unintentional jamming of cell phone signals in areas around prisons and jails.

Left unaddressed in the slew of criminal cases involving SCDOC employees is the motivation for guards and other staff to risk their jobs and freedom to smuggle contraband. Wages for guards are so low in some states that a married guard with two children qualifies for food stamps. The line between prisoner and prison employee is apparently a thin one. 



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