U.S. Attorney John Horn describes a fraud scheme that was being run by prisoners at Autry State Prison. The announcement of the indictment of 51 people came during a press conference Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016, in downtown Atlanta. (Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com)
Photo: Ben Gray
Photo: Ben Gray

Feds indict 51 in South Georgia prison cellphone scam

The call came from a law enforcement officer who had bad news: You failed to appear for jury duty and a warrant has been issued for your arrest. You can either get ready to be handcuffed or you can pay a fine to have the warrants dismissed.

Such calls were made to hundreds of unsuspecting people, most from the metro area and others across the country. Except these people hadn’t really missed jury duty and the officers at the other end of the call weren’t really cops — they were inmates carrying out scams from inside a South Georgia prison.

Federal authorities on Thursday announced the return of 13 indictments that charged 51 people with being part of a massive corruption, fraud and money laundering scheme carried out from inside Autry State Prison, located about 35 miles south of Albany.

Those indicted: 15 current or former inmates, 19 former prison officials and 17 others who allegedly helped from outside prison walls. The inmates carried out the scams using cellphones that had been smuggled inside prison walls, and most of the guards were charged with taking bribes to smuggle in the contraband.

The Cobb County Sheriff’s Office received complaints from more than 300 people about the scam, Chief Deputy Milton Beck said. By his calculation, 41 county residents were fleeced out of $37,000.

U.S. Attorney John Horn said the breadth of the scam went far beyond just Cobb. He said his office had yet to determine how many people were victimized and how much money they lost.

“It just makes no sense,” Horn said at a press conference announcing the indictments. “Where a prison is supposed to remove people from the community and protect the community from those inmates, these inmates are continuing their victimization from behind bars.

It also makes little sense, he said, that federal authorities are having to redirect “our precious resources to those who are already in prison serving sentences and are supposed to be getting rehabilitated and prepared to returning productively to society.”

A COMMON THREAD

The Autry State Prison inmates allegedly used their phones to access Internet search engines so they could learn the names of local police and court officials and find the names and phone numbers of their victims. They even set up their phones with fictional voicemail greetings that identified themselves as law enforcement officials, prosecutors said.

The victims who said they wanted to pay the bogus fines to have their bogus warrants dismissed were told to get a prepaid debit card and to transfer the money they owed to cards controlled by inmates, prosecutors said.

The indictments unsealed this week mark the third round of federal criminal cases since September that allege corruption in the state prison system. To date, 80 defendants, including more than 20 former prison employees, face federal charges. The criminal activity has occurred within four state prisons — Autry, Phillips, Valdosta and Hancock — and the Coastal Transition Center in Savannah, prosecutors said.

In September, a number of current and former inmates and two former prison officials were indicted for brokering drug deals, running telephone scams and even ordering a hit of a government witness. Earlier this month, 17 more defendants, including three inmates, were charged with running methamphetamine trafficking rings inside state prisons.

A common thread runs throughout the indictments — cellphones that are smuggled inside prison walls and used to carry out brazen scams concocted by inmates.

COMPLETE SHAKEDOWNS

The state prison system houses approximately 60,000 inmates. Over the past two years, prison officials confiscated more than 23,5o0 contraband cellphones, many of which possessed Internet capabilities, indictments say.

State Corrections Commissioner Homer Bryson said most of the contraband cellphones get inside prison walls through prison employees hiding them inside their clothing or inside their meals or through deliveries of supplies.

Just recently, Bryson said, a couch was delivered to Ware State Prison in Waycross to be reupholstered by inmates getting vocational training. More than 100 cellphones were found hidden inside the piece of furniture.

“There’s more out there,” Bryson said. “We’re still looking.”

Also Thursday, the commissioner said, more than 200 officers conducted a complete shakedown of Autry State Prison and found more cellphones, marijuana and methamphetamine. Shakedowns of all the system’s 33 facilities are planned in the near future, Bryson said.

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