The D.C. Department of Corrections has a clear-cut policy, spelled out in Departmental Order 5010.3, that tells correctional officers what to do when they confiscate illegal drugs from inmates or fellow officers: Turn them over to police.
That's not what happened, however, at the D.C. jail on Friday night, May 13, 1988. The police never saw the plastic envelopes of white powder that Correctional Officer Kyle E. Thornhill discovered in a box of still-warm Kentucky Fried Chicken delivered to the jail's tower gate.
Thornhill didn't know where the drugs had come from. He didn't know he had stumbled upon a drug-smuggling scheme that an inmate, Brenda Perry, had concocted two weeks earlier. Nor, he said later, did he realize that this was the fourth shipment of cocaine that Perry had arranged to bring into the jail by exploiting the officers' fondness for takeout chicken.
But as Thornhill stared at the four small packets nestled beneath the wings and drumsticks, he knew one thing: A formal investigation meant nothing but questions and recriminations for the officer he thought had ordered the food. He wanted to protect her.
After warning a fellow officer that something was wrong, he took the packets, dumped them into a nearby toilet and flushed them away. Two supervisors said they later heard that some kind of smuggling operation had been uncovered, but no formal investigation was conducted. Perry said she was not questioned about her involvement, and no one was charged in the incident, either administratively or criminally.
At first glance, the Kentucky Fried Chicken drug caper is a tale about how a clever inmate can smuggle drugs into the jail. But the story also contains broader, more disturbing implications about the jail's procedures and practices. At times, rules have been loosely enforced or just plain disregarded; officers say this laxness has contributed to a sense that people are not held accountable for their actions.
"That kind of incident, if it were true, would not be one that provides the kind of environment I think is conducive to quality performance," Walter B. Ridley, the director of the Department of Corrections, said in an interview.
Ridley said that he had never heard about the smuggling operation, which occurred when he was deputy director of the department, and that he intended to ask police to investigate. "I'm going to pass it over to law enforcement people and let them address that one," he said.
No one knows for sure how often drugs get into the jail, but officials acknowledge that some drug smuggling goes on. They point to the jail's drug-screening statistics: Each month, urine testing is conducted on more than 600 inmates who have been incarcerated at least a month. Between 6 percent and 10 percent show up positive.
Several inmates said in interviews that they regularly used drugs while in the jail. Some said they bought them from other inmates. Some said they obtained them from a drug-smuggling officer, paying with money or a portion of the drugs.
Inmates said jail officials rarely discover the drugs. The jail confiscates drugs about four times a month from arriving prisoners, who try to conceal the contraband in their clothes or their bodies, and only once a month from inmates already incarcerated, according to information provided by the Department of Corrections.
Neither the Department of Corrections nor the jail has an internal investigation unit with the formal role of looking into possible rule violations. Occasionally, however, suspicious officers do some investigating on their own. Last year, Maj. Ralph Green saw two officers exchange a package in a rainstorm, according to jail sources. Green followed one of the officers into the jail and confronted him; the officer handed over a plastic bag containing two rocks of cocaine. A grand jury later indicted Correctional Officer Ernest Williams and Sgt. Harold Carter for alleged drug smuggling. They have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
The jail's administrators say it is impossible to stop all smuggling, either by inmates or officers. "If people want to get drugs into an institution, be it the D.C. jail or a Lorton facility or any institution . . . they will get drugs into that facility," said William M. Plaut, who ran the jail from September 1987 to June 1989. "Unless you put a drug-sniffing dog at the entrance to the jail, drugs are going to come in if you've got a dishonest employee."
Plaut, who is now associate director for institutions for the Department of Corrections, said he believes that the vast majority of the jail's staff members are honest and hard-working. "When I got to the jail, staff were being treated with less respect than the inmate population," he said. "They were more suspect than the inmates were."
To demonstrate his trust in his officers, Plaut said, he canceled a rule that prohibited them from bringing takeout food into the jail. "I refused to treat 650 employees like they were less than honorable or less than professional because I had 1 or 2 percent of my staff who might be trafficking in contraband," he said.
By itself, the rule change meant little. To an experienced inmate such as Brenda Perry, it was one less obstacle to pulling off an audacious drug-smuggling scheme that has become part of jail folklore.The 'Deliveryman'
Brenda Perry's knowledge of the jail and its internal rhythms comes from years of firsthand observation. Since the facility opened in 1976, she has been locked up there 15 times on drug, prostitution and theft charges. She is a familiar face to many officers, trusted enough that she earned an assignment to one of the more sensitive jobs available to inmates: "detail" clerk in Female Receiving and Discharge.
Female R&D, as it is known in jail lingo, is a busy and important place. All female prisoners pass through R&D as they enter or leave the jail, putting tremendous pressure on the two or three R&D officers to maintain security while keeping extensive, accurate records of the prisoners' whereabouts. The atmosphere can get tense: New inmates undergo strip searches for drugs or other contraband, handing over their street clothes and personal belongings before they are led away in prison garb to one of the 1,364 cells used for confinement.
Pressed for time on many nights, the R&D officers frequently eat dinner at their desks; even before Plaut canceled the prohibition against takeout food in 1987, it was common practice for the officers to order pizza or Chinese food and have it delivered to the tower gate.
May 13, 1988, was one of those busy nights. Correctional Officer Sonja King was the senior officer on duty; she was supervising another officer and two detail inmates, including Perry. The group had worked together before and got along well; they shared the workload and they shared the takeout food. As King said later in an interview, sharing the food seemed only fair -- although it was a violation of jail regulations -- because the inmates worked so hard.
For several months, King had allowed Perry to order the food -- yet another violation. Perry knew the officers liked fried chicken; she told them that she had a friend who was willing to make a delivery from the nearby Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. For his trouble, they tipped him.
Unbeknownst to the officers, Perry had a secret arrangement to supply drugs to an addicted inmate, Tracy Jones. To set the scheme in motion, Perry made her telephone call to the "deliveryman"; an hour or so later, a bucket of chicken showed up at the tower gate, with the drugs tucked away at the bottom. "It just came to me one day," she said, smiling. "A lot of takeout food was coming in."
Perry gave explicit instructions to the drug courier: Buy only buckets. The boxes are flimsy and the chicken might shift, exposing the drugs.
In a separate interview, Jones said she had heard through the inmate grapevine that Perry was working in R&D and might have a way to get drugs from the outside. She was desperate for a reliable supply of drugs. A longtime addict, she began going through heroin withdrawal shortly after arriving at the jail on April 27, 1988.
Jones said she approached Perry and agreed to pay $150 a shipment for four $25 bags of powdered heroin or cocaine. She wanted two shipments a week and would pay only C.O.D. -- that is, after the drugs arrived in her cell. Then, she would get in touch with a friend on the outside, who would drop off $150 with someone designated by Perry.
"I had money and she had the means of getting drugs to me," Jones said, declining to detail her discussions with Perry. "It was just a matter of me paying."The Rendezvous
The first three shipments went smoothly. Following Perry's orders, the "deliveryman" came to the tower gate and asked for Officer King by name. To the officer on duty at the tower, all seemed normal. He alerted Female R&D, and King or another officer came to pick up the bucket of chicken and returned to R&D via the staff entrance.
Once the food arrived at R&D, Perry said, she took control of the bucket. As she distributed the chicken, she retrieved the plastic bags of cocaine and tucked them under her light-blue jumpsuit (the color worn by inmates who have been convicted and sentenced). She hid them there for the duration of her shift, which ended a few minutes before 9 p.m., as soon as the 8:30 p.m. head count of inmates was over.
Then, escorted by an R&D officer, Perry and the other detail inmate began the long trip back to Perry's cellblock, Southeast-1. Perry had to make it back by 9 to rendezvous with another detail inmate, who was waiting at the entrance to the adjacent cellblock, South-1. If Perry could somehow deliver the drugs to the detail inmate, she would take them to Tracy Jones in cell 23.
The first three times, Perry carried it off flawlessly. The plastic bags still hidden under her jumpsuit, she walked past the jail's command center on the ground floor and rode up the escalator to the first floor. There, she waited as an officer in a glass-enclosed control booth flipped a switch, opening a large glass-and-steel sliding door that seals off the three cellblocks in the south wing from the rest of the jail.
From her years in the jail, Perry knew what would happen next: Upon reaching the three cellblocks, the escort officer rattled the metal bars of the outer gate at Southeast-1 and shouted "On one!" -- a signal to the officer on duty inside to open the "number one gate." On the other side of the gate is the "sally port," an open area of several small offices that leads to a second gate and the cells themselves.
The shouting and noise created the distraction that Perry needed. Turning her back to shield her hands from view, Perry slipped the drugs out of her clothes and quickly passed them through the metal bars of the South-1 gate to a detail inmate on the inside -- a food cart worker who had maneuvered herself into the sally port after the 8:30 p.m. head count. "She was always there," Perry said. "If you're on detail, you can always manipulate yourself" into certain places.
The scheme worked so well that Perry felt it could operate indefinitely -- or at least for four months, until her parole date in August. But on May 13, it all fell apart.The Discovery
Looking back, Kyle Thornhill said he was always a little suspicious of the chicken deliveries. "It was the same man who had brought chicken to the tower several weeks before," Thornhill said. "This fellow always asked for King."
Thornhill's fellow officers said he wasn't so much suspicious as hungry -- that he had inadvertently discovered the drugs when he took a piece of chicken for himself. For some reason, the "deliveryman" had brought a box instead of a bucket, ignoring Perry's instructions. As she feared, the chicken shifted, revealing the packets of drugs underneath. "I raised one piece up and there were four, five little envelopes. Clear plastic . . . . Sealed. Filled with white powder."
Ordinarily, Thornhill had nothing to do with the chicken deliveries. But King was so busy that she had asked him to bring it up on his dinner break. Now he had a problem on his hands. The department's training manual says that "contraband control is one of the most important duties of a Correctional Officer," but Thornhill said his first thought was to warn King that someone was using her name to smuggle drugs.
He yelled for two other tower officers, Michael Menefee and Anthony Briscoe, to take a look. Then, disregarding departmental regulations about how to preserve evidence, Thornhill removed the plastic packets, placed them on a metal counter and told Menefee and Briscoe that he was going to R&D to see King. (After he left, Thornhill learned later, Briscoe informed a superior, Lt. Ralph Sewell, of what they had found. Sewell said that he remembers getting a call, but that the information he received was vague. He said he had never heard anything about Thornhill flushing the drugs down the toilet.)
"King," Thornhill called out upon arriving, "here's the chicken the fellow left." He walked over to Perry, handed her the box and then motioned to King to come with him, saying there was someone outside who wanted to see her.
Perry sensed something had gone wrong. She looked inside the box. "I was sick," she said.
On the ramp outside R&D, Thornhill told King what he had found. Both officers recalled the conversation:
"What!" King said. "I don't know anything about it. Why didn't you let me see what it was?"
"I'm trying to do this on the QT because I'm supposed to report this," Thornhill said. Perry "is really trying to mess you over."
Hurt and confused, King confronted Perry.
"Do you know they just found bags of dope in the chicken?" King said.
Perry decided to feign ignorance. "That couldn't be!" was all she said.
Distraught, King took aside her partner and explained that they had been duped. "We cannot let any more takeout food be brought in," King said.
As soon as Perry got back to her cellblock, she sent word to Tracy Jones. But Jones thought Perry was lying so she could keep the drugs for herself. When they saw each other a few days later, they began to fight; Classification and Parole Officer Francis Henderson broke it up. Trying to play down the incident so Henderson wouldn't ask too many questions, Jones told him a lie that she knew he would believe: "Oh, it was just a lover's quarrel."'I Was Used!'
Several of King's fellow officers told her that if she remained silent about the discovery of Perry's drug-smuggling operation, she would not suffer a reprimand. But King was scared; she didn't know who was behind the smuggling or how long it had been going on. And she couldn't understand why Thornhill had flushed the drugs down the toilet. Didn't he realize that just made matters worse?
She stewed about the incident for several days. On Tuesday, May 17, she went to see Regina Gilmore, an assistant jail administrator. King said she explained to Gilmore what had happened -- that she had allowed Perry to order the food, that the deliveryman had left the chicken in her name, that Thornhill had found the drugs and apparently had flushed them away.
Gilmore remembers it differently. She said King did not go into detail. "I vaguely remember her coming to me," Gilmore said. "She was upset . . . . It wasn't a long conversation. I remember it was late in the evening. She said she just wanted people to know that she wasn't a part of it."
Two days later, Lt. Sewell transferred King to another post, telling her that there were enough rumors going around that he had to do something.
In an interview, King poured out her anger. "I was used!" she said, tears streaming down her face and then onto the glass top of her dining room table. When she was able to resume, she said, "I would have preferred that the dope . . . be turned in and that a complete investigation be done."
King, 41, resigned her job in January 1989; earlier this year, she rejoined the department. Thornhill, 62, has retired. Jones is incarcerated at a federal prison in Lexington, Ky. And Brenda Perry was paroled, as she expected, in August 1988.
Asked how she managed to fool King, Perry said it wasn't hard. "I think I could have used any officer," Perry said. "All of them feel that I'm stupid and that I don't have the knowledge to do things."
NEXT: Hiring and firing
Correctional Officer Kimberly Morris, 24, fresh out of the Department of Correction's training academy and on the job less than a year, had not yet passed her probationary employment period when she began smuggling drugs to inmates at the D.C. jail in 1987.
Word had gotten around the cellblocks that she was working at the jail. Some inmates remembered her from the street, where she had dealt cocaine and PCP for several years to support her drug addiction.
One day while she was on duty in Southwest-1, a cellblock for female prisoners already convicted and sentenced, a nervous and hestitant inmate drew her aside.
"Morris," she remembers the inmate saying, "I got a question to ask you, but I really don't know how to ask. I'm scared to ask you, but I'm going to ask you. Would you do something illegal?"
"What are you talking about?" Morris replied.
"If I paid you well, would you bring something to me?" the inmate said.
"What are you talking about? Some food?"
"No, Morris. C'mon, Morris!"
"Morris, why don't you bring me a package in here," the inmate said, using a euphemism for drugs. "I'll pay you a hundred dollars for it."
"Girl, I don't even know how to go about doing nothing like that."
But the inmate persisted.
"It'll just be between us, Morris. Just do it this once, hear?"
"Let me think about it."
The inmate gave Morris a phone number to call. Morris thought about it for two weeks -- and then made the call. She said she did it because she needed the money. Some inmates offered her as little as $50, but she refused to take the risk for less than $100. "It had to be $100 or nothing," she said.
The arrangement was simple: She met the inmate's outside contact at the Potomac Avenue subway stop. The courier handed over a package and $100; the package was "wrapped real, real tight. They had it taped up . . . . It was about the size of a key case."
Morris kept it hidden as she passed through a cursory security check and then went straight to the cellblock to make her delivery. Concealing the package in her right hand, she slipped it to the inmate while greeting her.
Morris said she smuggled drugs into the jail about a dozen times from mid-1987 to early 1989, and then stopped because she was afraid of getting caught. One of her customers was inmate Peggy A. Grant, a longtime heroin addict who said she paid Morris to bring her drugs several times while incarcerated at the jail from April 1987 to August 1987. "She would bring it to my cell," Grant said.
Morris said she smuggled drugs to Grant twice. Grant, 34, has been in and out of prisons for 15 years on various charges, including shoplifting and forgery. She also named two other jail officers who she said smuggled drugs to her; she said she would then sell some of the drugs to other inmates.