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. Continue reading