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‘Staggering corruption’: 46 Georgia prison officers indicted in FBI drug and contraband sting

U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia John Horn speaks at a press conference announcing the results of Operation Ghost Guard on Thursday. (FBI)

As part of an undercover FBI investigation called “Operation Ghost Guard,” 46 officers employed at nine Georgia prisons have been indicted for accepting bribes to aid inmates with illegal activity.

The charges, which resulted from a two-year investigation of “unprecedented” scope, were announced by authorities on Thursday. Those arrested have not yet filed pleas.

The current and former correctional officers indicted are accused of accepting payments from inmates to smuggle contraband (cellphones, tobacco and so on) into prisons, as well as using their law enforcement credentials to shelter drug deals outside of prison walls.

Five are members of the elite tactical COBRA unit, whose function is to intercept prison drug deals. Two civilians and one inmate have also been arrested.

John Horn, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, said during a press conference that the indictments reveal “staggering corruption.”

“It is truly troubling that so many corrections officers from across the state of Georgia could be so willing to sell their oaths, to sell their badges, for personal profit — to benefit and protect purported drug transactions,” he said, adding that the alleged acts put the public in danger.

Thursday’s arrests are the latest in a crackdown that has resulted in indictments of 130 prison employees, inmates, former inmates and others since last September, according to the Associated Press.

Operation Ghost Guard was initiated after a smuggled cellphone enabled a prisoner to allegedly put a kidnapping and murder scheme into motion while serving a life sentence.

The inmate, Kelvin Melton, is allegedly a high-ranking member of the Bloods gang and allegedly tried to have his prosecutor’s 63-year-old father killed in 2014. Communicating through a contraband phone, Melton allegedly enlisted fellow gang members outside of prison to kidnap the victim from his Wake Forest home, resulting in a four-day interstate manhunt that ended in a rescue by federal agents. Melton has denied the charge and is awaiting trial.

Gregory Dustin Gouldman, a corrections officer at the high-security North Carolina prison where Melton is being held, was subsequently indicted for allegedly smuggling packages containing mobile phones, tobacco, marijuana and batteries from the outside and selling them to inmates. He has also denied wrongdoing and is awaiting trial.

Federal agents were also prompted to investigate the origins of jail contraband after tracing a phone scam known as the “jury scam” to Georgia prisoners.

The scheme, which the FBI says garnered tens of thousands of dollars for the state’s inmates, used “smartphones provided by corrupt guards” to trick people across the country into believing that they had missed jury duty.

The inmates pretended to be law enforcement officials — going so far as to identify themselves as such in their voicemails — and told potential victims that they had to either pay fines for failing to appear in court or face arrest.

“They sounded like deputies from a sheriff’s office,” one FBI agent said in a statement on the bureau’s website. “They were very sophisticated and believable.”

Operation Ghost Guard found that corrupt guards earned between $500 to $1,000 for smuggling a single cellphone for a prisoner. More than 23,500 contraband phones were confiscated from Georgia prisons in 2014.

“Corruption is all about how much money can I make from my position,” FBI Supervisory Special Agent Dan Odom told AP.

As part of the undercover operation, FBI agents gave Georgia prison guards the opportunity to use their authority to protect drug smuggling operations for a high-level trafficker who did not really exist, AP reported.

They were compensated with thousands of dollars in bribes.

“Because of one small act of corruption — a guard giving a cell phone to an inmate — many serious crimes can occur,”  FBI Special Agent Joe Gonzalez said in the bureau’s statement. “This is not just Georgia’s problem, it’s a national problem.”

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