46 Georgia prison guards sentenced for transporting drugs

FBI special agent Stephen Emmett uncovers a picture board of 49 indicted current and former correctional officers, inmate and civilians before a press conference on Feb. 11, 2016. More than four dozen current and former state prison guards were arrested Thursday and charged with drug smuggling and accepting bribes. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

FBI special agent Stephen Emmett uncovers a picture board of 49 indicted current and former correctional officers, inmate and civilians before a press conference on Feb. 11, 2016. More than four dozen current and former state prison guards were arrested Thursday and charged with drug smuggling and accepting bribes. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

One by one, dozens of Georgia correctional officers have gone from being guards to being the guarded.

The last of 46 one-time prison guards was sentenced Thursday for using their uniforms and badges to smuggle what they believed to be cocaine and methamphetamine for the inmate Ghost Face gang. They are now prisoners themselves, much like the men and women they were once paid to watch.

The operation — much of it captured on video — is one of the biggest corruption scandals ever to hit Georgia’s prison system.

“We knew it was a problem but we didn’t appreciate the severity,” Kurt Erskine, first assistant U.S. attorney, said of the investigation.

The arrests sprang from a broader 2014 probe into corruption at two state lockups in Gwinnett and Mitchell counties, where inmates were running scams using cell phones officers had smuggled in to them. It grew to involve 130 people at nine prisons around the state.

Once federal and prison agents started looking, “one institution would lead to another institution,” Erskine said. Federal authorities launched an elaborate sting operation in which an informant offered prison guards cash for moving what they believed to be drugs. Many took them up on it.

Caught on Video at the Outlet Mall

The guards were always wearing their uniforms when they slipped into the passenger seat of the car of a man they thought was a drug trafficker. Their meeting place: the parking lot of Tanger Outlet at Locust Grove

Each time, the guards were shown packages that supposedly contained methamphetamine and cocaine, given $1,500 in cash and handed a backpack to carry the drugs.

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“Red is always the meth. The black is cocaine,” an informant told Selena Black, showing the 22-year-old correctional officer at Macon State Prison two wrapped packages.

Black was told to drive less than 15 miles from the outlet mall to a parking lot at a Walmart in Griffin, where she would find a gold Cadillac with the doors unlocked

“Just throw it in there,” the informant told Black. “Somebody’s going to pick it up as soon as you drop it off.”

A camera hidden in the informant’s car and another outside it captured the exchanges. The video showed prison guards in uniform, their badges predominately displayed.

“I don’t deal with nobody who isn’t in uniform because I have to protect my route,” the informant told Black.

Black pleaded guilty on June 10, 2016, to one count of attempted drug trafficking, and is serving a four-year sentence at a minimum-security federal prison camp in West Virginia.

Only two of the officers avoided prison, getting probation instead. The rest have already received sentences ranging from 18 months to 9 1/2 years in a federal penitentiary. Tramaine Tucker, once a guard at a private institution near Milledgeville, was th last of the 46 officers to be sentenced, on Thursday he was given five years in federal prison.

Prosecutors said there is no doubt the guards knew what they were getting into.

“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,” U.S. Attorney John Horn said when the arrests were announced.

Horn said the officers “betrayed the institutions they were sworn to protect.”

Low pay or greed?

Georgia’s correctional officers make between $27,936 and $41,296 a year. This year, they got a significant pay bump. But those supporting a family on a correction officers’ salary may still make so little money that they qualify or Medicaid or fall below the federal poverty level.

And while there was no single reason offered for what led the officers to agree to team up with a prison gang, money was at the root of the problem.

Jeremy Fluellen, for instance, said he needed the money because his prison salary wasn’t enough to cover an unexpected expense.

“He said it was necessary to pay a large fine for … DUI,” assistant U.S. Attorney John Ghose said Fluellen’s sentencing.

Fluellen, 28, was convicted of two counts of attempted distribution of cocaine and two counts of extortion under the color of official right, and sentenced last week to 75 months in federal prison, joining his two brothers he recruited already in a U.S. penitentiary.

“I am not a criminal,” Fluellen wrote in a statement that his lawyer read at his sentencing. “Yes, I committed this crime. I learned from this lesson.”

Fluellen’s twin brother, Dantavis, was sentenced in July to five years in prison. His younger brother, Tacowan, was sentenced in February to three years in prison.

But authorities had little sympathy for those who became caught up in the arrests.

“It’s greed that put them into this. They knew they were breaking the law. Period,” said Clay Nix, who is head of the criminal division of the Georgia Department of Corrections’ internal affairs unit. “This woke everybody up to the problem we had.”

“So you’d shoot ‘em?”

The sweeping operation that concludes this week began with a probe into cell phones. And despite the arrests and millions of dollars spent to better secure Georgia prisons, the flow of contraband remains a chronic issue.

So far this year, DOC has seized almost 5,000 cell phones from inmates. Just since July 1, corrections officials have found 750 wireless devices in prisons.

The criminal charges and shaming photographs of officers who helped inmates posted just inside prison entrances have done little to slow the problem.

It’s the money, officials say.

And the recordings that captured conversations between officers and informant showed some guards were willing to do almost anything to make more than the $1,500 they were given for each transport.

The informant told Joshua Johnson, then a 20-year-old guard at Macon State Prison, he was working for a sophisticated organization that brings in tractor-trailer loads of drugs and doing anything beyond transporting backpacks of cocaine and methamphetamine is dangerous.

“If they were to put you in the game and if the man said, ‘okay, shoot this guy.’ Would you do it?,” the informant asked Johnson

“Sure. Yeah,” the officer answers, smiling.

“So, you’d shoot ‘em?” the informant asks.

“I would. As long you supply the gun and tell me who it is,” Johnson said.

Johnson was sentenced Aug. 3 to 5 1/2 years in prison for accepting a bribe to protect and drug transaction and attempted drug trafficking. Now 22, Johnson is in a federal prison in Butner, N.C.