In May 2014, Kelvin Melton orchestrated a kidnapping scheme. The perpetrators assaulted the victim with a stun gun, took him from his home, and sent texts to his family demanding ransom. Throughout this time, Melton continued to give instructions to the kidnappers via cell phone. Fortunately, law enforcement was able to thwart the plot and recuse the victim. These facts alone make for a gripping crime. But the story had an extra twist: Melton, the mastermind behind the kidnapping, was in a prison cell the entire time, serving a life sentence for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill; the target of the kidnapping scheme was the father of the prosecutor who put Melton behind bars. Melton was able to orchestrate the crime while behind bars because he had been able to obtain a contraband cell phone from a guard.
While the facts of this case are sensational, the phenomenon of inmates corrupting prison guards in order to obtain contraband is far from unusual. In the wake of Melton’s crime, the FBI launched a new program—Operation Ghost Guard—to root out corruption by correctional officers. The first major case out of the program came in 2016, when the FBI indicted nearly 50 former and current correctional officers for accepting bribes from inmates in exchange for contraband. Over the course of a two-year undercover investigation, federal officials learned how inmates and guards in Georgia formed their own crime syndicate. Guards would bring in liquor, tobacco, and cell phones in exchange for thousands in bribe money. Inmates, in turn, would use the cell phones to commit wire fraud, money laundering, and identity theft. Outside of the prison, guards were using their badges to facilitate drug deals. The United States Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia called the levels of corruption “staggering.” And Georgia is not alone; New York state prison officials are currently under investigation by the FBI as well.
The issue of prison corruption is not unique to the U.S. Prior posts on this blog have explored how Brazilian inmates were able to bribe guards in order to facilitate large-scale drug and weapons trading within the complex, and how incarcerated drug lords in the Philippines bought off guards in order to live in comparative luxury behind bars. In the United Kingdom, the widespread practice of bribes in exchange for drugs or cell phones led the penal system to be called “institutionally corrupt” by a report issued by the country’s own Metropolitan police. How do these acts of corruption come about in the first place? And what can we do about them? In her earlier post on prison corruption in the Philippines, Bea Paterno focused on the need for better monitoring and oversight. That’s surely part of the solution, but we also need to pay attention to other aspects of the prison environment, including the guards’ working conditions and the ways in which they interact with inmates.
- First, and most straightforwardly, low wages for prison guards is one important reason why some corrections officers succumb to bribery. In Georgia, where the FBI recently arrested 50 prison guards engaged in a corruption, the starting salary can be as low as $24,322—roughly the poverty line for a family of four. In Mississippi, the starting salary of a prison guard qualifies the worker for food stamps. The general secretary of the Prison Officers’ Association in the U.K. blamed low pay for corruption, the connection has been made in Panama as well, and empirical studies have suggested that corruption is negatively correlated with wages. Raising wages could help reduce corruption in prisons.
- Second, in addition to low wages, working conditions in prisons are poor. Turnover for correctional officers is high, stress levels are severe, and the possibility of violence on the job is real. Economic research has shown that workers expect some sort of compensation in order to face stressful working conditions. Bribes may help fill this void. Poor working conditions do not excuse the guards’ misconduct, but they may help explain it. To address this issue, we need to think about ways to improve working conditions for guards. For example, reducing overcrowding in prisons can improve morale and reduce violence.
- Third, recognize the means by which guards are often lured into a corrupt relationship with inmates through manipulation. As the FBI has explained, there is often a subtle process that leads a guard to become complicit in smuggling schemes. It often begins when inmates offering guards simple items such as prison commissary goods. If the guard accepts, he is in violation of a prison rule. The inmate may use that initial misstep as leverage to get them to commit larger crimes. But explicit threats aren’t always necessary. Often, inappropriate relationships between guards and inmates are enabled by the close contact of a prison environment. Researchers who spent time working in a Texas prison observed inmates and guards develop a high-degree of sociability that can be used to compromise the guards. Over a three year period in Texas alone, hundreds of prison guards were disciplined for engaging in inappropriate relationships, such as exchanging contraband, with inmates. One solution to his would be to improve training and screening of guards. In New York, the length of training for prison guards is less than one-third of that for police officers, and these low standards have been blamed for leaving guards susceptible to corruption. Expanding and improving training could help prepare guards to avoid and defuse situations that might lead to corrupt exchanges.
More broadly, policymakers should also avoid contracting with private prisons, as they have a financial incentive that works against these anticorruption measures. This warning is particularly relevant after the U.S. presidential election, as the markets have predicted that the use of private prisons will soar under a Donald Trump’s mass deportation plan. Private prisons seek to cut costs to turn a larger profit, and this is often accomplished through reductions in wages, benefits, and other labor costs. This frugality includes cuts to staff. The FBI has found that employees for the private prison company Corrections Center of America (CCA) understaffed facilities they managed. Perhaps this explains why in Idaho, one CCA facility experienced four times as many violent incidents as all public prisons in the state combined. And training can be sparse. One journalist recounted how he was offered a job at a private prison in Louisiana without a throughout review of his resume, and a background check that lasted less than 24 hours. Training for the job lasted four weeks, and there was no mention of anticorruption training.
We commonly see news stories about crimes that land people in prison in the first place. It is rarer to hear of the crimes that go on within prison. Understanding the prison environment, however, and how it affects both inmates and guards, is essential if we want to correct it. Beyond prosecuting wrongdoers, reformers should consider how to improve the prison environment too. Prisons cannot hope to achieve their goal of rehabilitating inmates if the guards themselves are breaking the law.