Drones helped bring drugs, weapons into Georgia prisons, investigation finds

‘Operation Skyhawk’ leads to 150 arrests, including 8 prison employees
The months-long investigation into Georgia prisons led to the arrest of 150 people, including eight GDC employees who Kemp said were immediately terminated.

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

The months-long investigation into Georgia prisons led to the arrest of 150 people, including eight GDC employees who Kemp said were immediately terminated.

Officials say 150 people, including eight Georgia Department of Corrections employees, were arrested after a massive investigation into contraband at prisons around the state.

Search and arrest warrants were served Thursday at two facilities in the metro Atlanta area, leading to the dismantling of a “sophisticated, multi-state criminal enterprise” operated by inmates, Department of Corrections (GDC) staff and civilians who were bringing contraband into prisons, Gov. Brian Kemp said.

Charges range from contraband introduction, drug trafficking, possession of firearms by convicted felons, violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, and participating in criminal gang activity. Kemp said more than 1,000 criminal charges have been filed and the case could “possibly be the largest Gang RICO in the state’s history.”

“Georgia will not tolerate those who put our communities at risk by trafficking drugs, weapons, and contraband both in and out of our correctional facilities,” Kemp added.

The months-long investigation officials are calling “Operation Skyhawk” uncovered that drones were being used to bring contraband into GDC facilities, according to Kemp.

Various substances — including 185 pounds of tobacco, 67 pounds of marijuana, 51 pounds of ecstasy, 12 pounds of methamphetamine, 10 grams of cocaine and almost 100 pills — were confiscated during the operation. Nearly 90 drones, 22 weapons and more than 450 cell phones were also found.

The discoveries led to the arrests; the GDC employees arrested were fired immediately, Kemp said.

“The success of ‘Operation Skyhawk’ should be a reminder to anyone — inside or outside our prisons — that we have zero tolerance and will take swift action against those who threaten the safe operations of our facilities and the safety of the public,” said GDC Commissioner Tyrone Oliver.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation into Georgia prisons found that the GDC is facing staffing shortages. The department said its vacancy rate for correctional officers was 55% in fiscal 2023. In 2017, there were 5,478 employees. Last year, there were 2,685. The annual turnover rate for guards was 40% in 2023.

The GDC is one of the largest prison systems in the nation, supervising about 47,000 prisoners, Kemp confirmed.

System employees sometimes become criminals themselves by smuggling in contraband or allowing others to do it, the AJC investigation found. According to the state, prisoners’ friends, family and gang associates are largely responsible for providing most of the phones, drugs and other prohibited items, GDC officials said.

The AJC uncovered more than 425 cases in which GDC employees were arrested from 2018 to mid-2023 for crimes on the job. Some were charged with brutality, extortion or sexual assault, but the majority were involved with contraband. Some of those employees were paid thousands of dollars before they were caught in schemes, according to the AJC.

The investigation also revealed inmate drug deaths have been soaring. In 2018, two Georgia prisoners died from drug overdoses. Between 2019 and 2022, at least 49 Georgia prisoners died from overdoses.

Prisoners in the state have died from drugs including meth, fentanyl, synthetic cannabinoids, codeine, morphine, and even a recent synthetic opioid known as pyro. Georgia prison officials apparently didn’t recognize that illicit drugs caused some of the deaths, the AJC’s investigation shows.

The state Senate during the recently concluded legislative session authorized a committee to examine the prison system. The committee launched, coincidentally days before the warden at Telfair State Prison was stabbed by an inmate during a search for contraband.

John Albers, R-Roswell, head of the Senate’s Public Safety Committee, told the AJC that Georgia’s prisons are “extremely violent places, war zones within wires. Correctional officers are those left battling that war.”

Paul Wright, a former prisoner who has published Prison Legal News since 1990, told the AJC about the struggle the system has in finding employees.

“The state is competing with Walmart for workers,” he said. “I can go to work for Walmart and no one will throw feces at me or try to kill me. And then they act surprised that no one wants to work in their prisons.”

AJC columnist Bill Torpy contributed to this article.