Hoping to stanch "a crisis in contraband," federal prosecutors have indicted 14 former state corrections employees accused of taking bribes for smuggling cellphones and drugs into South Carolina's prisons.
But some questioned whether the authorities simply recycled old allegations in order to look strong in the wake of a Lee County prison riot, the nation’s deadliest in a generation. Officials attributed that uprising to disputes over contraband and territory.
All of the correctional officers and other workers named Wednesday had already been fired, and some were already serving sentences after pleading guilty to state charges. The federal charges, though, would carry up to 20 years in prison for most of the defendants.
Columbia lawyer Lori Murray, who represents one former officer now on probation for smuggling contraband, contended that all 14 had already faced state charges for the same conduct that prompted the federal indictments that were filed April 18, three days after the melee at maximum-security Lee Correctional Institution.
"That leads me to believe it’s a new charge based on what happened in Lee County," Murray said. “They’re here to serve as an example of what will happen to these correctional officers who continue to provide contraband to prisoners.”
Acting U.S. Attorney Beth Drake told reporters the federal charges against former prison employees were not tied to the recent Lee Correctional riot. Asked about the timing, state Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said only that his agency has worked with federal authorities for years to fight the influx of prison contraband that contributed to crimes.
Neither Stirling nor Drake would say how many of the indicted also face state charges. Drake said that it is "not uncommon for the federal system to pick up a case where there is a significant federal interest."
The new federal charges include bribery, fraud and drug distribution. Prison employees charged included officers, a nurse, a groundskeeper and food-service workers, Drake said. They worked at eight different prisons across the state, including three at Lee Correctional. Drake would not disclose if any of the accused collaborated with each other in alleged smuggling schemes.
Court records allege that the officers and employees delivered cellphones, marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, liquor and cigarettes to prisoners over the past three years.
"The South Carolina Department of Corrections is facing a crisis in contraband," Drake said at an afternoon news conference with Stirling and other investigators.
Drake said the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed in 2016 to help Stirling battle the contraband problem. Drake and Jordy Norris, the FBI’s special agent in charge in Columbia, said the contraband smuggling investigation is not over but they declined to say if more indictments are imminent.
None of the accusations, though, are directly related to the riot last week at Lee Correctional Institution that killed seven inmates and injured 22 others, though officials attributed the melee to the same scourge that has infected the prisons.
FBI agents arrested many of the defendants Wednesday morning. They were arraigned later in the day at U.S. District Court in Columbia.
Their alleged crimes happened between 2015 and December. All 14 are charged with using interstate commerce to facilitate bribery and honest services wire fraud conspiracy. Most face up to 20 years in prison on those charges combined.
Eight also face a count of possession with intent to distribute narcotics, which carries up to five years behind bars.
The indictments identified the defendants, though the records added little about where they worked, lived or what they did.
The officers are:
- Joshua Cave, 29. He's accused of taking $1,246 in bribes last year from a murderer serving time at Allendale Correctional Institution.
- Frank Pridgeon, 64
- Camille Williams, 65
- Douglas Hawkins, 29
- Shatara Wilson, 29. She was arrested last year in a state case accusing her of smuggling marijuana and liquor into Lee.
- Miguel Williams, 41
- Jamal Early, 23
- Sharon Johnson Breeland, 29
- Catherine Prosser, 60
Those identified as employees are:
- Darnell Kleckley, 33
- Rachel Burgess, 39
- James Harvey, 54
- Robert Hill, 53
- Holly Mitchem, 37
The defendants, led into the Columbia courtroom in shackles by U.S. Marshals, sat quietly while the judge read from the indictments during their arraignment. Some looked at the floor. Breeland shook her head and used a tissue to wipe her eyes. All later pleaded not guilty.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Shiva Hodges granted Richardson’s request to set a $50,000 bond for 13 of the defendants and a $100,000 bond for Breeland, accused of distributing drugs mixed with methamphetamine, which carries harsher penalties.
She faces a mandatory minimum sentence of five years and up to 40 years in prison, Hodges said. Her lawyer said she lives in Winnsboro, works as a nursing home dietitian and is the primary caretaker for two young children.
Hodges assigned Breeland a lawyer through the federal public defender’s office. One of the defendants, Cave, retained a private attorney. Hodges assigned all other defendants a lawyer through a federal program.
Contraband is big business in the correctional system, and there's money to be made by the gangs who can smuggle it in.
That was seen April 15 when rioting over turf and contraband broke out at Lee prison in Bishopville.
Drake declined to answer questions about the state of security at South Carolina prisons or the Lee Correctional riot, saying she wanted to keep the focus on the new charges against former employees. Stirling kept his answers to how his agency has tried to improve pay and security at state prisons.
Corrections officials have been installing 50-foot nets and training volunteers from the South Carolina State Guard to patrol the prison fence lines to keep contraband out, but that does little to prevent smuggling from guards who are paid to smuggle phones, drugs and tobacco into the facilities.
Low wages for corrections officers has long led to understaffing in South Carolina’s prisons and created temptations for guards who can supplement their pay by smuggling items in for the gangs that control the flow of contraband.
A 2012 series by The Post and Courier, “Trouble behind prison walls,” revealed that more than 400 South Carolina prison employees had come under scrutiny in the previous six years for alleged crimes, gross misconduct and other violations. 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.
Stirling, who was named corrections director in 2013, has fought to boost pay for his officers to help combat these temptations, boost morale and improve security at the prisons. But the flow of contraband has continued. And with relaxed discipline policies in the wake of a 2014 court ruling, contraband phones became ubiquitous, enabling inmates to coordinate a host of criminal activities from behind bars.
That became particularly evident in late 2016 when federal authorities busted a drug ring inside and outside McCormick, Ridgeland, Perry, Lee, Walden, Graham and Broad River correctional institutions. Fifteen people, including five inmates, were indicted on charges that they trafficked methamphetamine and other drugs from South Carolina to California.
Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said prison officers' low salaries exacerbate the contraband problem and legislators share blame in that. Their salaries are so low compared to other law enforcement agencies, "the incentives to misbehave are too tempting sometimes. And that's incumbent on us. These are dangerous, important jobs, and they have to have better compensation," Smith said.
As this week’s indictments show, prison officers continue to be swept up in contraband smuggling investigations. Other arrests in the past year include:
- Last May, an officer at McCormick Correctional Institution was busted and accused of trying to smuggle marijuana, cigarettes, 16 cigars and a flip phone with a charger into the prison, The State newspaper reported.
- In July, an officer at Lee state prison was arrested for allegedly trying to sell earphones and watches to an inmate for $400, according to WIS-TV.
Joseph Cranney and Seanna Adcox contributed to this article.