ATLANTA — Dozens of Georgia prison guards agreed to protect drug smuggling operations for a high-level trafficker, believing their status as correctional officers would protect them from a vehicle search if they were stopped by police, authorities said Thursday. In exchange, they received thousands of dollars in bribes.
But there was no big drug trafficker and the drugs weren't real. It was all part of a sting operation by the FBI.
A total of 46 current and former correctional officers, as well as two civilians and one inmate, were arrested Thursday in the latest phase of an undercover federal investigation targeting contraband and criminal activity in the state's prisons, authorities said. Since September, about 130 people — including prison employees, inmates, former inmates and others accused of helping them — have been indicted in the effort known as Operation Ghost Guard.
The investigation began when the FBI traced a scam — in which people around the country received phone calls saying they had missed jury duty and they could either pay a fine or be arrested — to Georgia prison inmates using contraband cellphones. That led them to look at how the phones were getting in, and they zeroed in on guards who were smuggling in phones and other contraband in exchange for bribes, said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Dan Odom.
It snowballed from there. Corrupt guards saw an opportunity to get more money, and the scheme was hatched to protect the purported drug trafficker, who was supposedly moving kilograms of cocaine and methamphetamine from one part of the state to another, Odom said. A majority of those charged in the latest round of indictments agreed to wear their uniforms while accompanying the purported drug trafficker or while transporting the drugs themselves, believing that would shield them from law enforcement interference, the indictments say.
"Corruption is all about how much money can I make from my position," Odom said.
The indictments resulting in the arrests Thursday were filed over the last three months and unsealed Wednesday. The officers charged worked at nine different prisons.
The corruption ran so deep that five of the guards arrested were on the Department of Corrections' COBRA tactical team, which is tasked with investigating and preventing drug trafficking and criminal activity and contraband inside the prisons, U.S. Attorney John Horn said.
Given the magnitude of criminal activity in the Georgia prison system, the solution is not arrests and prosecution alone, he said.
"These are systemic problems that were uncovered in these cases and they're going to require more comprehensive solutions," Horn said.
The expenses for the investigation reached nearly $1 million in taxpayer money, said agent Britt Johnson, who heads the FBI's Atlanta office, all to investigate and indict people who were already in prison and corrupt officers responsible for overseeing them.
One of the biggest challenges is attracting and retaining quality correctional officers for a tough job with low pay and marginal benefits, said Department of Corrections Commissioner Homer Bryson. The department has a job vacancy rate of about 30 percent and a turnover of about 2,000 officers a year, he said.
Bryson added that he's working with the governor and Legislature to get more money set aside that will allow for higher starting salaries and promotional pay.