They agreed to protect drug smugglers and believed that in their state-issued uniforms, they’d be able to avoid police. In exchange, the Georgia Department of Corrections officers would pocket cash earned from the bribes, according to federal investigators.
But the FBI was already a step ahead and conducting an undercover investigation into corruption in Georgia’s prison system. That crackdown continued Thursday when federal and state authorities arrested 46 current and former guards, two civilians and one inmate on drug and bribery charges.
Many of the prison guards were ensnared in undercover sting operations targeting officers who worked at nine correctional facilities across the state, U.S. Attorney John Horn said. Most were accused of taking bribes to protect drug dealers while others were indicted for smuggling contraband to inmates.
The seven federal indictments released Thursday showed what Horn called “staggering corruption.”
“It is truly troubling that so many corrections officers from across the state of Georgia could be so willing to sell their oaths, to sell their badges, for personal profit to benefit and protect purported drug transactions, drug dealers,” Horn said at an afternoon press conference.
The announcement Thursday was the fourth into criminal allegations at Georgia prisons since an investigation began two years ago.
“They not only betrayed the institutions that they were sworn to protect, but they betrayed the trust and faith of thousands of honest corrections officers who uphold the ideals and values of their jobs every day,” Horn said.
All together, approximately 130 people have been charged in the extensive operation, including prison employees, inmates and outside co-conspirators, according to investigators. The investigation began two years ago and focused on just one prison, where there were allegations of cellphones and fraud. But agents learned the problems went beyond one prison, Horn said.
“After we got there, the agents discovered that one inmate would lead to another inmate,” Horn said. “One inmate would refer a source to a second or third or fourth inmate who was engaged in the same conduct.”
Inmates then revealed names of corrections officers accused of bringing in contraband, including liquor, phones and drugs.
Ordering A Hit On A Witness
In recent months, federal prosecutors have obtained a number of indictments alleging corruption inside the state prison system. Those indictments charged guards with smuggling drugs into prison, or getting contraband cellphones to inmates — who then used the phones to run crime rings inside prison walls.
In an indictment handed up last fall, one inmate allegedly used a contraband phone to order an unsuccessful hit on a government witness. Another was accused of making calls from inside his prison cell while pretending to be a credit card fraud investigator to get unsuspecting victims to turn over personal financial information.
Just last month, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced the return of 13 more indictments that charged 51 defendants — including 19 former prison officials — of being part of a massive corruption, fraud and money laundering operation carried out from inside Autry State Prison in South Georgia. Using contraband cellphones, inmates called hundreds of unsuspecting people, telling them they would be arrested for missing jury duty unless they made payments to accounts controlled by the inmates, the indictments said.
The prisons investigated include Phillips State Prison in Buford. Others outside of metro Atlanta include prisons in Oglethorpe, Sparta, Hardwick, Unadilla, Hawkinsville, Chester, Pelham and Milledgeville.
Corrections Uniforms As A Cover
One indictment charged 19 former guards who worked at five prisons and five more guards who worked on the Department of Corrections’ tactical team. A final defendant was a man who allegedly posed as a guard, wearing a corrections uniform. It appears these 25 defendants were caught in a sting.
During 2014 and 2015, the indictment said, these individuals allegedly believed they were providing cover for a drug dealer who was transporting large quantities of cocaine and methamphetamine in the Locust Grove area. In exchange for thousands of dollars in payoffs, these defendants, wearing corrections uniforms, accompanied the purported drug dealer as he made his deliveries to purported buyers, the indictment said. Some guards made the deliveries themselves, investigators said.
The guards believed that if they were stopped by law enforcement while they were transporting the narcotics, police would see their uniforms and not search the vehicles, the indictment said.
All 49 suspects in the latest indictments were arrested Thursday and later made their first court appearances in front of a federal magistrate judge, Horn said.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.