Trouble Behind the Prison Walls: Small mistakes made by employees can end careers
Editor’s note: Part 1 of a 2-part series
Paula Jackson and Mack Myers sent each other breathless love letters. They had phone sex. And when they found private moments, they carried out their physical desires.
Like many affairs, theirs eventually took a sour turn, imploding amid accusations of harassment and betrayal.
The big difference: They carried on their romance inside a maximum-security South Carolina prison where Jackson worked as a mental health counselor and Myers was serving time for armed robbery.
What’s more, their lockdown love drove Jackson to smuggle in tobacco, a cellphone card, candy, sandwiches and other contraband items for Myers. Her transgressions cost Jackson her job in 2010 and landed her in jail on a felony sexual misconduct charge.
Jackson’s case offers a glimpse behind prison walls into a hidden, almost primeval world where criminals have little else to do but test corrections officers and other prison workers with incessant schemes to obtain illicit pleasures: booze, drugs, tobacco and sex. It’s a pressure-packed world full of temptation, danger and cautionary tales.
It’s also a place where even small mistakes can have potentially deadly consequences, as two guards at Kirkland state prison learned in 2009 when they failed to properly search a convicted murderer before removing him from his cell. Inmate Jacquan Ferrell pulled a secreted blade from his rectum and sliced a prison nurse across the neck, records show.
The two guards, who received suspensions for their oversight, were among more than 400 South Carolina prison employees who have come under scrutiny over the last six years for alleged crimes, gross misconduct and other violations, according to data and case files obtained by The Post and Courier. More than 350 of them were suspended, demoted or fired for their transgressions; 78 received written warnings.
Their offenses ranged from beating up inmates to stealing a cow from a prison work farm. But the lion’s share of cases involved workers who ran afoul of contraband rules or crossed the line with prisoners, engaging in smuggling, sex and other forbidden behavior.
These are folks such as Paris Rainey, a former guard at Lieber state prison who was fired in 2010 for having sex with an inmate and smuggling in Ecstasy pills and tobacco. Or former corrections officer Roderich Brock, who in 2010 got busted smuggling a $30 can of tobacco into Perry Correctional Institute in Pelzer to sell to an inmate for $300. Or officer Ricky Phillips, caught trying to enter McCormick state prison last year with packages of tobacco and phone memory cards taped to his chest.
Low pay, high turnover
These acts occurred in an environment where pay is so low, manpower so limited and conditions so rough that about one out of every three guards quits each year.
It was against this backdrop in January that 229 hardened criminals staged a riot at Lieber prison in Ridgeville, home to the state’s death row. They took control of a dorm wing and beat up the two guards on duty.
After that riot, several present and former correctional officers complained that prison conditions have gotten steadily worse in recent years as the department’s budget has dwindled, exposing workers to greater risks and leaving them susceptible to temptation. The prisons struggle with staffing shortages and have leaned on electronic surveillance to help make up for reduced personnel.
Scott Jones, a former sergeant at Lieber, quit his job a week before the riot due to safety concerns about having to work alone at night on a wing with a hundred or more violent, volatile offenders.
Jones said his mantra at the beginning of each shift was to promise himself he would go home to his family in one piece.
Johnnie Bryant is a former sergeant at Ridgeland who was fired last year due to allegations that he and another officer had used excessive force on an inmate in 2008.
Bryant, who maintains his innocence and is challenging his termination, characterized the state’s prisons as brutal and frightening places, particularly for new guards who are thrust into this world with five weeks of training and little supervision.
Inmates do whatever they can to try to manipulate the new arrivals, offering cash, sex or the promise of good behavior to squeeze them for favors.
“It’s a wake-up call when you get there and you have one hundred-something inmates looking at you and you don’t know what to do,” Bryant said. “That’s when some can fall prey to bringing in cellphones and cigarettes for inmates and some of these other things that officers do.”
‘A tough world’
Corrections Director William R. Byars Jr. readily concedes that the department’s corrections officers face a tough world, and attracting good candidates can be a challenge. Prisons are competing for talent with other industries that pay more. And many prisons are located in out-of-the way, rural areas where the job pool is generally smaller and less educated.
“The low pay does not enhance the ability to attract officers,” Byars said, especially considering that the work is stressful and the environment is difficult and dangerous.
Prison records back that up. From 2008 through 2011, more than 400 corrections officers were assaulted by inmates. Of those, 92 officers had injuries serious enough to require outside medical attention.
Physical violence is not the only challenge prison workers face.
An investigation by The Post and Courier revealed:
Low pay presents a critical challenge in recruitment and retention and contributes to many of the system’s other major problems. The $24,300 starting salary for South Carolina prison guards is the fifth-lowest of 15 Southern states.
Almost a third of the state’s 3,700 corrections officers leave each year, forcing the agency to train some 1,200 new employees annually to fill those vacancies. In 2010, the latest year for which figures were available, South Carolina’s turnover rate ranked third in the nation. And at any given time, the vacancy rate remains at a stubborn 10 percent to 15 percent.
Smuggling contraband, particularly cellphones, remains a profitable and vexing enterprise, posing a risk to guards and the public. The department seizes 250 cellphones a month, many simply thrown over prison fences.
Inmates use contraband phones to coordinate smuggling drops, run blackmail schemes and conduct other illicit business, prison officials said. In 2010, for instance, a captain at Lee Correctional Institute was shot six times after an inmate used a smuggled cellphone to order a “hit” on the officer at his home, they said.
Insufficient training contributes to discipline problems and security risks. South Carolina’s prisons provide just 220 hours of training for correctional officers in their first year on the job, a third less than the average for 15 other Southern states, according to a 2010 Southern Legislative Conference report.
Inadequate staffing increases risks to corrections officers, limits rehabilitation and increases security risks. Assaults by inmates on South Carolina’s prison guards occur at double the rate on average for 15 Southern states, the Southern Legislative report states.
A persistent problem
These conditions have long provided fertile ground for temptation and corruption to take root, and misconduct issues have dogged the prison system for decades.
In fact, the new millennium began with a series of scandals involving sex, security lapses and record-keeping fraud in the prisons.
Problems came to light in 2000 after convicted child killer Susan Smith contracted a venereal disease in prison and admitted to having sex with a guard on multiple occasions. A State Law Enforcement Division investigation followed, and more than a dozen prison guards and Corrections employees were charged with having sex with inmates or smuggling drugs in the state’s prisons. Two guards were charged with letting inmates have sex at the Governor’s Mansion.
A new prison director was hired, reforms were enacted and, for a time, the state shoveled more money into its beleaguered prison system. But budget cuts and the recession hampered that progress as get-tough laws swelled the prison population from about 20,000 in the late 1990s to a high of more than 24,000 by 2008.
Corrections ran a $30 million deficit in 2010 just to keep its facilities operating in a strained system that was built for 18,000 inmates. The prison population has since declined to about 23,000 inmates, but prisoners still outnumber their guards by a nearly 6-to-1 ratio. The proposed $354 million correctional budget, which includes just $200,000 in new money, would do nothing to improve that ratio.
Byars is hopeful that prison sentencing reform will further drive down the population, placing more nonviolent offenders in the community and freeing up resources to stabilize staffing and offer more inmate rehabilitation measures.
And efforts to merge Corrections with the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services could also aid in that effort, eventually freeing up money to improve wages and other conditions, said Michael L. Fair, R-Greenville, who chairs the Senate’s Corrections and Penology Committee.
In the meantime, advances in technology and a ban on tobacco in state prisons has created a lucrative black-market economy for workers willing to risk arrest to smuggle in cellphones and cigarettes.
Behind prison walls, a carton of cigarettes can fetch $100 or more, while cellphones sell for up to $500 each.
The case of Jesse R. Briggs, a guard at Kershaw Correctional Institute, shows how much money is at stake. Last year, investigators discovered that Briggs got at least $1,800 wired to him through Western Union from friends or family members of inmates in exchange for smuggled-in tobacco — up to $250 for 4- or 5-ounce bags, which can cost less than $20 on the outside, prison records show.
Corrections officials fired him in August after an inmate squealed on him, claiming he paid Briggs $250 to bring him more tobacco and Briggs didn’t do so.
That’s tempting money for employees who make $24,300 to start. And it’s why contraband smuggling and crossing the line with inmates remain serious problems for prisons around the country, officials said.
“I think you are much more tempted to do things like that when you feel under-appreciated in the pay you are making and in the environment in which you work,” said Davidson County, Tenn., Sheriff Daron Hall, president of the American Correctional Association. “Until we raise that bar, those temptations are only going to increase.”
It is difficult to say how South Carolina stacks up against other states in regard to employee misconduct because each state has its own way of keeping data and few comparative studies exist.
“I’m not aware of anyone keeping track of that,” said Tom Beauclair, deputy director of the National Institute of Corrections in Washington, D.C. “There’s just no way to really know the answer, frankly.”
The Post and Courier had difficulty determining the extent of the problem in the Palmetto State. State records of disciplinary actions and internal investigations are spread between two different offices in Corrections with no cross-referencing system.
Prison officials themselves had a difficult time pinpointing the number of misconduct complaints lodged over the last six years, insisting for months that the figure stood at 972 cases. They realized the number was about half that after The Post and Courier questioned discrepancies.
Still, Corrections officials insist they are doing everything they can to ferret out bad apples and employ a “zero tolerance” approach to violations.
Case files for disciplinary records for the last three years seem to bear that out. They show a system in which accidentally carrying a personal cellphone into a prison can bring suspension without pay, and giving a soft drink to an inmate can result in a ticket out the door.
Records show contraband smuggling and improper relations with inmates are the most significant disciplinary issues inside the state’s prisons. For that reason, corrections officers are not supposed to give inmates anything or provide them with any personal information.
Take the case of Sgt. Tammi Barton, a veteran corrections officer with seven years experience. She said corrections officials booted her in 2010 because she gave a vending machine drink to a pregnant teenager visiting her inmate father.
Barton said she felt sorry for the teen because she had waited in the hot June sun.
“I was not aware that I couldn’t get her something to drink,” she said in a recent telephone interview.
And in 2009, correctional officer Rodney Simpson, a preacher’s son, was fired after he allowed inmates to keep some religious writings to study and had personal discussions with them.
Simpson said recently he had just “tried to do something positive” for an inmate.
Buying the peace
Director Byars, who was appointed last year by Gov. Nikki Haley to take command of the state’s prisons, said he wants to make some accommodation for corrections workers who make “honest mistakes out of the goodness of their heart.” Corrections must take into account that most of the complaints about prison workers emanate from inmates who “are people who did something really bad,” he said.
Still. Byars’ hand-chosen inspector general, Jerry B. Adger, said even well-intentioned mistakes can open major breaches in security. Adger heads the department’s 30-member police force that investigates misconduct and illegal activity in the prisons. He knows inmates are experts at manipulation, can spot vulnerabilities in guards and use the smallest gaffes as bargaining chips to get what they want.
Former corrections Officer Andrea Henneghan learned this the hard way. In 2008, she struck up a friendship with an inmate at Turbeville Correctional Institute. They chatted, exchanged notes. Then she agreed to deliver some messages to the inmate’s aunt.
Before long, Henneghan was smuggling cans of tobacco into the prison for the inmate for $100 a pop. She got caught and lost her job, records show.
In 2010, Officer David Holcombe lost his job at Columbia’s Broad River prison in a similar fashion. In just 15 months on the job, Holcombe got talked into smuggling in watches, colored pencils and pens for inmates. He also let them into the prison’s automotive shop to get tools — prime materials for fashioning shanks — and gave them his home address and phone number, records indicate.
“Everything happened so fast that they had me before I knew it,” Holcombe said in a sworn statement.
Former Corrections Director Jon Ozmint, who ran the agency from 2003 to 2011, said that when he arrived on the job, some wardens were reluctant to get rid of guards for infractions because they were already short-staffed and struggling to fill positions.
But Ozmint said letting these violations slide creates a slippery slope.
“You can earn the peace or buy the peace. And if you buy the peace with favors, the price always goes up,” he said. “Pretty soon that staff member has put themselves in a position where he loses his job and the inmate is still fat and happy, because it doesn’t cost him anything.”
Some former officers say that justice is unevenly applied within the prison walls and that “zero tolerance” is used to settle old scores.
Correctional Officer Stephen J. Karpa lost his job in December 2010 after officials at Perry Correctional Institute in Pelzer discovered weapons and other contraband in the van he used to ferry around prisoners on a roadside litter detail. In all, officials said, they found 14 knives, five pairs of scissors, tobacco, drug paraphernalia, two cellphone chargers and $183.06 in cash.
Karpa’s problems were compounded when investigators learned he had told an inmate he did not like the warden and “we need to get rid of the warden because he is firing good people.” When the inmate replied, “I know how to get rid of the warden,” Karpa admitted saying, “Go ahead.”
In a recent interview, Karpa explained that he just said those things to build trust with inmates and that the items found in his van were mostly useless pieces of trash. He’s convinced prison officials targeted him for elimination after 19 years because he was compassionate toward inmates and treated them fairly.
Karpa said he saw worse transgressions over the years, including guards shaking down prisoners for cash at knifepoint to supplement their paycheck. They slid by, while he got the ax, he said.
“If they want to get rid of you, they will,” he said. “They can do whatever they want. It’s their little world.”
Former corrections Lt. Wanda Scarborough agreed. She was fired last year from Lee Correctional in Bishopville after she was accused of shoving an inmate face-first into a metal door after he had been pepper sprayed. She denies the allegation, and thinks the real reason she was fired was that she was working under a captain who didn’t like women serving in Corrections.
“They know this is a lie,” Scarborough said. “They locked me up and took away my job for nothing.”
Prison officials insist these employees and others were disciplined with due cause. Though some might not like the outcome, weeding out potential problems and maintaining security are essential if any progress toward rehabilitating inmates is to be made, they said.
To illustrate the point, Adger, the inspector general, stretched his arms out from his sides, imitating the scales of justice. Suddenly, he let one arm drop low as the other swung high.
“You can’t operate a prison with the scales of justice lopsided.”