Confiscated cellphones were on display at the press conference. Federal authorities have obtained indictments that allege two groups of inmates used cellphones inside state prisons to run a drug ring across the metro area and perpetrate fraud schemes against individuals outside the prison walls. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Prison phone smugglers creative, dangerous

They brokered drug deals, ran telephone scams and ordered a hit on a government witness — crimes that fetch long stints in prison. Except these criminals were already in prison.

Two federal indictments unsealed Thursday alleged that state inmates were assisted by prison employees on the inside and recently released inmates and girlfriends on the outside. And their schemes had one common thread: cellphones smuggled inside prison walls.

The creative inmates’ brazen use of their cellphones enabled them to post on social media, create a fictitious company online, even order shoes and have them delivered. One also pretended to be a credit card fraud investigator to get unsuspecting victims to turn over personal financial information, prosecutors said.

“Prisons serve to punish and rehabilitate convicted offenders and deter crime — not enable it,” U.S. Attorney John Horn said at a press conference. “Prisons should be a place where we have confidence that inmates are not operating identity theft schemes and drug distribution rings.”

Corrections Commissioner Homer Bryson at Thursday’s press conference: “It is a huge issue. We confront it every single day.” BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres

An investigation by the FBI and GBI led to the two indictments against 12 people who allegedly ran two unrelated crime rings — one inside Phillips State Prison in Buford, the other inside Valdosta State Prison.

Among those charged is a former Department of Corrections guard, a former contract employee who worked in a prison kitchen, four current inmates and three parolees.

Contraband cellphones are a menace, Corrections Commissioner Homer Bryson said.

Since he was appointed in February, Bryson said, 50 individuals, including 22 prison officials, have been arrested for trying to sneak contraband inside state prisons. Prisons have confiscated 7,644 cellphones so far this year.

“It is a huge issue,” he said. “We confront it every single day.”

The department has put more netting above prison walls to make it harder for people to throw phones over into the yards, Bryson said. He recalled that someone a few years ago stuffed a dead cat with cellphones and threw it over a wall.

Prisons are also using infrared cameras, thermal cameras and body scanners to detect contraband cellphones. Bryson also urged the Federal Communications Commission to consider Georgia’s request to use jamming devices that block cell phone signals.

Phones are smuggled in by prison employees, contractors and inmates returning from work details, hidden inside body cavities and meals. A drone filled with contraband recently crashed inside one state prison, Bryson said.

The investigation found that inmates regularly buy contraband cellphones, including the latest models with touch screens and Internet access.

At Valdosta State Prison, inmate Donald Hinley, who is serving life without parole for murder, routinely arranged to have phones, cigarettes, liquor and drugs smuggled inside by prison employees, the indictment said. Among them was former guard Anekra Williams, prosecutors said.

On one occasion, Williams, who was also indicted, allegedly smuggled in prescription pain pills and methamphetamine to Hinley, who paid her a $500 bribe.

Hinley also relied upon Ruben “Flaco” Ruiz, William “Two Young” Matthews and Kansas “Guido” Bertollini, all of whom were granted parole last year. With their help, Hinley brokered significant drug deals in the Atlanta area and in other areas of Georgia, the indictment said.

Hinley also ordered the killing of an inmate he believed was cooperating with authorities, the indictment said.

“Hinley ordered his associate to ‘shoot every one’ of the witness’ family members and said, ’ … pop them all off, kids, grandmamas, daddies, I don’t give a (expletive), right?’ ” the indictment said.

The cooperating inmate was placed in protective custody.

The indictment involving Phillips State Prison accuses inmates Mims Morris, Johnathan “Turtle” Silvers and Adam “Scrap” Smith of engaging in a prison smuggling and fraud scheme. They were allegedly assisted by Charonda Edwards, a contract employee who once worked in the prison’s kitchen and is now under indictment. She allegedly smuggled in phones, drugs and tobacco for inmates in exchange for payoffs.

Last year, Morris, serving a life sentence for murder, called a woman pretending to be a Discover credit card fraud investigator, the indictment said. He told her there were fraudulent charges on her card and got her to give him her credit card number. Morris later used the woman’s card to transfer $2,200 to another credit card he controlled and later used the woman’s information to obtain approval or a Capital One Platinum Card, the indictment said.

Morris also asked his girlfriend — and now co-defendant — Tiffany Allen to post a fake ad on Craigslist for jobs at a bogus construction and roofing company in Sacramento, Calif. The ad gave interested parties a number to call: the cellphone Morris was using inside prison.

Morris allegedly planned to get hopeful applicants to turn over personal information that he could use to order debit cards in their names. Morris told Allen, the indictment said, that getting that information would be “easy as pie.”

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