Blank greeting cards led to arrest of GED instructor at Georgia prison

Credit: Ga. Dept. of Corrections

Credit: Ga. Dept. of Corrections

Ex-teacher testifies he brought in contraband, had sexual contact with inmates at Pulaski State Prison

For 18 months, DaShawn Melvin served as the GED instructor at Pulaski State Prison, a position that offered him the opportunity to improve the lives of incarcerated women.

It also, according to his own sworn statements, gave him the chance to make money as a courier of contraband and to sexually abuse some of those he was supposed to help.

In testimony that sheds new light on life at Pulaski as well as the Georgia prison system, Melvin admitted in a Fulton County court that he made thousands of dollars by repeatedly bringing in contraband he knew included greeting cards laced with unknown substances before he was caught in April.

His testimony shows how paper products have become a vehicle for getting drugs to inmates and for the first time suggests that a Georgia Department of Corrections employee helped to facilitate the gang-related violence and extortion at Pulaski, much of it fueled by drugs.

It also underscores how staffing shortages are creating dangerous conditions in the prison system. Melvin was just five months out of college when he was hired to oversee the GED program at Pulaski, Georgia’s second largest prison for women, even though he had no background in the field and no teaching credentials.

That job gave him unsupervised access to prisoners, and he testified that he had sexual contact with the inmate who allegedly received the contraband, 23-year-old Selena Holmes, as well as with at least six others.

Melvin, 25, was fired April 29, a day after he was discovered trying to enter the prison with 10 blank greeting cards and other types of contraband. Confronted by authorities, he immediately said the cards and other items were for Holmes.

Melvin has since been charged with four offenses in Pulaski County, including crossing the prison’s guard line with weapons, intoxicants or drugs.

His testimony in Fulton County added significant details about his alleged misconduct, but his statements can’t be used against him because he testified under a grant of immunity from Judge Melynee Leftridge at a June hearing in which prosecutors sought to revoke Holmes’ status as a first offender.

Holmes has been charged in Pulaski County with multiple offenses for her alleged role in the smuggling. Those charges include conspiracy to possess methamphetamine with intent as well as conspiracy to participate in criminal gang activity. The gang charge apparently stems from her role with the Bloods, the gang most often cited for the mayhem that has upended life at the Hawkinsville facility this year.

Holmes’ arrest drew the attention of Fulton prosecutors because she is serving a 15-year sentence for her role in a 2018 gang-related shooting in Atlanta that left the victim paralyzed from the waist down.

Joan Heath, the chief spokesperson for the GDC, said in an emailed statement that the department fired Melvin after his arrest and turned the matter over to the local district attorney.

Melvin did not respond to multiple messages from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A lawyer who represented him at the Fulton County hearing, Larry Fouche of Macon, declined to comment for this story because he said Melvin did not actually retain him.

Drugs and paper

Across the country, prisons have been forced to deal with employees, historically poorly paid, bringing in drugs for inmates and using paper products to do it. The paper is typically soaked with K2, a synthetic cannabinoid, or Suboxone, a treatment for opioid addiction that can be addictive in its own right. It’s then dried, making it appear to be a legitimate book, letter or greeting card. Once in the prison, the paper is torn into strips and smoked or dissolved under the tongue.

The influx of those products, coupled with the willingness of prison personnel to bring them in or look the other way, has dramatically increased the presence of drugs in prisons, said Nicole Wiesen, an advocate for Georgia prison inmates who was formerly incarcerated herself.

“Correctional officers or other prison employees have essentially become drug mules for the gangs,” she said. “If you can get an additional $4,000 a month times 12, who wouldn’t do it?”

In Melvin’s case, he was hired in October 2020 in response to a “critical need” request from Pulaski Warden Meosha McMillan. She wrote that the prison had no-full-time instructors and, as a result, the number of inmates obtaining high school equivalency degrees had dropped “drastically.”

At the time, Melvin was a detention officer in Bleckley County and didn’t have a teaching credential.

Initially hired as a part-time employee, he was promoted to full time in March 2021 with an annual salary of $36,268. He still didn’t have a teaching credential but got one on a provisional basis six months later.

Drugs, Pop Rocks, tobacco

According to arrest warrant affidavits, officers checked Melvin’s bag at the prison entrance on the morning of April 28 and found the greeting cards. A search of his car then turned up a package with 17.5 grams of methamphetamine strips, 21.4 grams of marijuana and 10 Suboxone strips. He also was found to have in his car and bag perfume, lip gloss, disposable contact lens, tobacco, tea bags, bubble gum, Pop Rocks and two red bandanas.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

At the time of his arrest, Melvin told investigators that the delivery had been set up by Holmes two weeks earlier. He said she had given him the phone number of a man he didn’t know. He said he was then in contact with the man, who mailed packages to be delivered to Holmes.

Testifying with immunity at the hearing in Fulton County, however, he was more expansive, describing how he’d brought greeting cards for Holmes under similar circumstances on four previous occasions, each time receiving $1,000 via Apple Cash. He also acknowledged that he knew the cards were for a use other than what might be normally intended.

“I don’t know exactly, you know, the nature of the cards, like what they may have had on them or anything like that, but I do know that, you know, that was the … that was the deal in it,” he testified.

Unexpected turn

The hearing moved in a different direction when Melvin was cross-examined by Holmes’ attorney, Arturo Corso, and shown a photo of the inmate exposing her bare breasts.

Melvin acknowledged that the photo had been taken with a laptop computer in the Pulaski education office and that he had emailed it to himself and then texted it to someone else.

Further questioning from Corso led Melvin to admit that he improperly touched Holmes’ breasts, buttocks and pubic area and had done the same with six other inmates, identifying them by name.

Asked by Corso whether Holmes had given him permission to touch her buttocks, Melvin replied: “Well, I didn’t ask her, `Could I?’ It’s just we were having a conversation and she was like, oh, well, you know, see for yourself or … It was more or less along the lines of that.”

Under Georgia law, a person with supervisory authority over another person can be charged with sexual assault for touching the intimate parts of that person even if there’s consent. The law specifically mentions educators and correctional employees.

Melvin testified with “use” immunity, meaning he though he cannot be charged with sexual assault based on his testimony, his conduct could be prosecuted with independent evidence.

Heath, the GDC spokesperson, told the AJC that if evidence of additional crimes becomes known to the agency, it will conduct interviews and determine if further action is warranted.

Judge says no

Melvin’s testimony ultimately failed to sway Leftridge, who declined to revoke Holmes’ first-offender status.

“It is clear to the court that Mr. Melvin intended to inculpate defendant and minimize his own instances of unlawful/inappropriate/unethical conduct — which, in addition to smuggling contraband into the prison, also included a number of sexual contacts with female inmates, including the defendant,” the judge wrote.

Leftridge’s ruling means Holmes can still have her conviction in Fulton County removed from her record by successfully completing her sentence.

In a statement emailed to the AJC, Corso sharply criticized Fulton DA Fani Willis and the deputy who prosecuted Holmes, Cara Convery, for allowing Melvin to testify with immunity “in spite of his serial sexual assaults on some very young Black women in our state prisons.”

In a written statement, Jeff DiSantis, the spokesperson for the DA’s office, said the office didn’t know before the hearing that Melvin had sexual contact with inmates because Corso had not shared that information.

Melvin has been free on $3,500 bond since his arrest. The charges against him and Holmes are likely to be considered at the next meeting of Pulaski County grand jury in September.


Our reporting

This story is part of a continuing series by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the rising violence within the Georgia Department of Corrections, which has been under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department since September 2021. Many of the newspaper’s stories have focused on Pulaski State Prison, where gang-related violence and extortion have become prevalent over the past year. In response to the reporting, U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff has requested a separate FBI investigation, calling the situation at the facility “tragic and wholly unacceptable.”