meshDETECT, Secure Prison Cell Phone Solutions ™
meshDETECT, Secure Prison Cell Phone Solutions ™

Guards Drawn Into Contraband Smuggling

An article on the corrupting influence of prisoner demand for contraband items, and the willingness to pay for those items, has on correctional officers.

Contraband smuggling in prisons is a problem of supply and demand. Prison initiatives to reduce contraband, such as smuggled cellphones, should include strategies to reduce demand as well as prevent supply. The meshDETECT secure prison cell phone solution co-opts the demand for smuggled cell phones, and therefore the contraband value of those phones.

Matthew Amos has wide, boxcar shoulders and steam-engine arms. On Friday he stood before a federal judge in Denver pleading for his life.

If he went to prison, Amos told the judge, he would have to pay fellow inmates for protection. Or he would be “whored out.” Or worse.

It’s what happens to former prison guards who end up behind bars.

“There’s no way I would be able to stay out on that yard without providing some kind of service,” Amos said, voice unsteady. “To be asked to go into that system will be asking me to be something I don’t want to be.”

This is where $17,200 in easy money landed him.

Amos’ conviction for smuggling tobacco into a federal prison in Florence provides a revealing glimpse into the jailhouse black market — where a single bag of tobacco can go for $1,000 and the key players in funneling contraband to inmates are often the very people hired to watch over them.

Between 2001 and 2010, the annual number of federal correctional officers arrested nearly doubled, according to a Justice Department report released in September. During that period, 272 officers were arrested, with many of those cases involving contraband-smuggling.

Tobacco, which was banned in nearly all federal prisons in 2004, has fueled a lucrative, illicit prison economy that proves irresistible to some prison workers. But employees have also been involved in smuggling cellphones, drugs and other items into inmates.

“Some officers can make more than they’re making from their actual paycheck just by smuggling in tobacco,” said Robert Worley, a professor of criminal justice at Texas A&M University — Central Texas, who has studied inappropriate guard-inmate relationships.

Bureau of Prisons? spokesman Chris Burke said prospective employees undergo background checks and have regular training in an effort to snuff out smuggling.

“We try to educate them on some of the traps that staff can fall into and on how inmates can manipulate staff,” Burke said, adding that most prison employees keep their noses clean.

At Amos’ sentencing hearing Friday, Florence associate warden Louis Milusnic said smuggling by employees has devastating impacts throughout a prison.

“When a staff member crossed over the line and becomes compromised . . . it erodes the authority the staff members have to have to keep control of the inmate population,” he said.

In many ways, Amos’ case is typical of the slow recruitment of prison workers into the black market. He worked as a recreation specialist at the prison, where he had regular contact with inmates, including one with whom he became friendly. After slipping the inmate some extra leatherworking supplies from time to time, Amos and the inmate began talking about a tobacco-smuggling scheme.

Amos would sneak in bags of tobacco to give to the inmate, who would handle distribution to customers around the prison, according to a recounting of the case in Amos’ plea agreement. The inmate’s girlfriend would collect money from the customers’ families and then put a chunk of it into a bank account for Amos. Amos was sent a debit card tied to that account, according to the plea agreement. His take was $400 per bag.

Between May and November 2007, Amos withdrew $17,200 from the bank account, according to the court document. A January 2008 tip from Amos’ inmate accomplice proved his undoing.

Senior U.S. District Court Judge John Kane took sympathy on Amos, saying he wanted Amos — a military veteran who served in Bosnia — to receive treatment and education instead of prison. He gave Amos five years of probation.

And Amos said he was sorry.

“I fully take responsibility for everything I’ve done,” he said. “I’m ashamed of not only what I’ve done but the image I’ve cast on everyone else.”