Luis Molina (William Hurt): The nicest thing about feeling happy is that you think you’ll never be unhappy again.
The worst thing about petty corruption is that you think you’ll never get caught.
So you move up to grand corruption.
And maybe murder.
As Fairly Civil explored in Part One and Two of this series, the illicit drug trade and the prison gangs that control it behind bars drive much of the corruption in prisons. But drugs are not always the prime mover. Correctional officers simply yield sometimes to the temptation to exploit the relatively weak and vulnerable position of their inmate charges for sex and money.
A shocking 2006 shootout at the entrance to a federal woman’s prison in Florida pulled back the curtain on a long-running scheme in which six federal corrections officers were exploiting female offenders. The male guards were trading privileges and contraband for sex and cash, using threats to cover up their corrupt acts.
After a federal grand jury handed up a secret indictment of the guards, FBI and U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General (OIG) agents set out to make arrests. The agents arrived at the Federal Correctional Institute (FCI) near Tallahassee, Florida early on the morning of June 21, 2006. It appears that the arrest team did not expect resistance because the indictment was supposedly secret — although the fact of the investigation seems to have been known — and guards were not allowed to bring guns into the prison.
Guards were not searched, however. One of the indicted federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) officers, Ralph Hill, had smuggled in a personal gun. Hill must have known something was up, as he had retained counsel. In any event, he opened fire on the arresting agents. Hill shot OIG Special Agent William “Buddy” Sentner to death, and was himself killed in the melee. Another correctional officer assisting in the arrests was wounded. The DOJ shooting report on the incident has not been publicly released, at least to my knowledge.
Three of the accused officers pleaded guilty and two other were convicted of various charges after trial.
Alfred Barnes was among those who pleaded guilty. The “Factual Basis For Plea” filed in his case (U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida, Docket # 4:06cr36-RH) lays out the whole scheme in dry, prosecutorial, but nonetheless sordid detail. Because it is Barnes’ admission, it probably is about as reliable a first-hand description as one can get from this record:
During the period alleged in the indictment, there existed among defendants a tacit agreement to use and help one another to use their positions as correctional officers for personal gratification and financial gain, contrary to the law and the public’s best interest. This agreement included the understanding that certain defendants would have sexual contact with inmates, would introduce contraband into the prison to sell and use as bribes, and would have inmates and others send money via the U.S. Postal Service and other means of payment for contraband.
Barnes’ statement lays out several specific examples of how the scheme operated. Here is one from among them:
Defendant Barnes…accepted bribes in the form of payments and sexual favors from Inmate #1 in exchange for providing her with contraband. Inmate #1 would have associates outside of FCI Tallahassee mail money or contraband to him using a name different than his own to…[an] address in Thomasville, Georgia, that defendant Barnes provided. Defendant Barnes received money and sexual favors as compensation for bringing the contraband into FCI Tallahassee. The contraband…that defendant Barnes brought into FCI Tallahassee pursuant to this scheme consisted of alcohol, cosmetics, clothing, jewelry, and cigars.
The admission also describes how Barnes and the others sought to cover up their criminal conduct:
It was understood that to facilitate and conceal these unlawful activities, certain defendants would take steps to discourage inmates from reporting defendants’ illegal conduct. These steps included threatening to plant contraband among the inmates’ belongings, threatening to have inmates shipped to institutions far from their friends and family, monitoring inmates [sic] telephone calls, directing inmates not to cooperate with Department of Justice investigators, and displaying the BOP computer tracking system to inmates to show how defendants could monitor the whereabouts of the inmates even if they were transferred to another institution. Contrary to their duty as correctional officers, it was also understood that defendants would keep silent and not report the conduct and violations described above.
This sleazy scheme brings the “women in prison” movie genre to life. But in real — as opposed to “reel” — life, the corruption undermines the whole system. One former female inmate told the Tallahassee Democrat (June 21, 2007) after the case was concluded that officials “brushed everything under the carpet.”
“It just dies down for a while,” she said. “All the officers watch their steps, and they watch what they do. But then when they think it’s cool, they slack, and they start doing it again.”
“We have zero tolerance for any abuse towards an inmate,” said a BOP spokesman.