First there was a picture sent to Jimenna Whitner’s cell phone of her brother, who was bloody and beaten.
Next, she got a text message from somewhere inside Baldwin State Prison 950 miles from her home in Michigan, demanding $1,000. Otherwise her inmate brother, Thomas Maher, would be killed.
“From the pictures and stuff we knew they weren’t playing,” said Whitner, who earns $800 to $900 a month cleaning rental mobile homes for new tenants. “We don’t have money.”
But Whitner found a way to pay the inmates who had allegedly punched and kicked her brother, a convicted rapist, for about two hours in a cell block shower. She raised the money from relatives and paid the inmates through “Green Dot” cash cards that carry VISA or MasterCard logos.
Seeing the pictures, “I threw up. I was in shock for a minute,” she said.
Georgia inmates have found a way to reach beyond metal doors and bars, concrete walls and razor wire to victimize those on the outside, family members and prisoners say.
Corrections officials say they have found nothing to support individual claims of extortion. But they concede the ongoing problem with cell phones, which are not allowed in prison, makes it easy for inmates to continue to prey on others.
Three families of inmates in two Georgia prisons told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution their extortion stories. In each instance, a brutal picture taken with a cellphone and a threat are followed with instructions to pay up.
“His right eye socket looked to be punched in,” Whitner said. “He told me his teeth were lose. His nasal passage on his right side was punched in.”
Brenda Keck of Rossville said she got similar demand last August in a call that came at 2:30 in the morning. Keck said inmates at Hays State Prison in northwest Georgia sent an image of her son tied up, blindfolded and at knife-point. They wanted $500 but she persuaded them to drop their demand to $300 after explaining that she and her husband were disabled. She had an hour to go to a nearby Walmart in Walker County to buy a Green Dot card.
“They talked to me the whole time while they are threatening to kill my son,” said Keck. “I had to give them the number on the card. Then they hung up and called me back and said, ‘OK. We have it.’ My son called the next morning. He never saw them [his alleged attackers].
“They just stole $300 from us.”
The DOC says multiple investigations have found little evidence to support the claims. Ricky Myrick, director of the Office of Investigations and Compliance at the Department of Corrections, said there have been 25 to 30 reports of extortion. In some cases, inmates would not cooperate with investigatios, he said. In other instances “the only thing we’ve been able to verify is some of the inmates themselves are willing participants,” Myrick said.
“The true catalyst behind our problem still reverts back to the cell phones,” Myrick said.
Myrick said the agency has tried unsuccessfully to persuade federal regulators and the cell phone providers to support a “low-cost solution to a serious public safety issue. That would stop … all types of fraud. Not just extortion,”
No one — not even employees — are allowed to bring cell phones into a prison. Yet inmates can buy them, at inflated costs, from staff willing to smuggle them in for a price.
Myrick said DOC employees who had been caught selling cell phones to inmates were paid via Green Dot cards, transactions that require only the number on the cards but not an ID to deposit or to withdraw funds.
That is the same method inmates allegedly are using to extort money from people outside prison walls.
“They move this money card to card and … you can lose the money in a couple of days and never know where it came from,” Myrick said. “This is the new way they do things. That’s what’s driving the contraband trade.”
Donna Nockols said she received a call just before midnight on Oct. 2 from an inmate demanding that she put $250 on a Green Dot card.
Her fiance would be beaten if she didn’t cooperate, they said.
A photo was sent to her via text showing Wayne Shaw, serving a life sentence for a 1997 murder in Hall County, already with blood dripping from his lip.
Nockols, disabled and on a fixed income, didn’t have the money, however, and couldn’t raise it.
A few hours later she received more pictures on her cell phone, showing her what had happened to Shaw because she refused their demand.
The pictures, provided to the AJC, show the word “rat” carved into Shaw’s forehead, burns on his chest and broken fingers and teeth.
“They’re brutal,” Nockols said.
Shaw said his attackers took all his belongings, including athletic shoes Nockols had bought for him, clothes, hygiene items and snacks from the prison commissary.
She believes Shaw’s version of what happened is true. But she said cellmates have called her under the guise of passing on a message from Shaw while he was in segregation.
“They have extorted me, his friends, for so much money,” Nockols said. “I was naive, I was thinking they were doing something for Wayne. But they were doing things for themselves. There’s always a scam. There are lots of scams with those (darn) Green Dots.”
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