9 Investigates

9 Investigates: Correctional officers smuggling contraband into state prisons

ORLANDO, Fla. — Update:  State prison inmates will have visitation restricted because of contraband.

Starting April 7, family members will only be allowed to visit every other weekend. 

Officials with the Department of Corrections said there are too few correctional officers to control the vast increase in contraband statewide. 

The new scheduled will be evaluated after 90 days. 

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In the last three years, dozens of correctional officers and other prison employees have been accused of smuggling illegal contraband into Florida state prisons, but 9 Investigates learned that few of them face prison time for the felony charges related to the crimes.

9 Investigates' Daralene Jones has been reporting on the issue since November, when she uncovered how an inmate used a cellphone to terrorize a rape victim from prison. Jones obtained court records and investigative reports detailing how the inmate contacted the victim and her children through social media and harassed prosecutors through email.

Because of Jones' investigation, the inmate was temporarily placed in confinement and the Florida Department of Corrections transferred the inmate to another state prison to prevent him from accessing cellphones provided by others.

The FDOC said it has struggled to control the problem as it tries to increase retention, improve pay and boost staffing levels. The agency has more than 12,000 positions, more than 1,500 of which are vacant -- about 13 percent. And that doesn't include correctional sergeant, lieutenant or captain openings.

FDOC blames smuggled contraband on visitors and drones, stressing that its employees aren’t the primary problem. But records show that correctional officers contribute to the problem and are rarely held accountable for their actions.

9 Investigates reviewed hundreds of court documents and investigative reports involving 40 correctional officers and other prison employees, who became suspects or criminals in some cases.

Their photos were taken when they were arrested at Florida state prisons on charges of introducing contraband, official misconduct or unlawful compensation.

"I brought a cellphone in," said Stephen Gillespie, a contracted prison employee. "It was just in my pocket. Nobody even questioned me."

Gillespie was hired to work at a prison through a third-party vendor that had an FDOC contract at the time of his employment.

9 Investigates spent weeks reviewing court records to create a spreadsheet listing each correctional officer by name. The idea that came about when current and former state prison employees contacted 9 Investigates following its report in November about inmates obtaining illegal cellphones.

Read: 9 Investigates: Inmate in confinement after answering call on illegal cellphone from WFTV reporter

"They do everything but a body cavity search on the visitors,” Gillespie said. “But the staff? No. The contraband comes in through the staff.”

FDOC told Channel 9 in November that it added new technology, including X-ray machines, to all staff and visitor entrances at its institutions earlier in the year.

The agency provided Channel 9 with the following statement:

"Staff go through X-ray searches similar to visitors, daily. And a newly created intelligence unit is now examining innovative approaches to keep cellphones out, which might be harder than initially thought, considering what the Inspector General revealed about how they're getting in, even with routine sweeps."

Court records indicate correctional officers and supervisors allegedly earned thousands of dollars by selling smuggled cellphones to inmates.

In January, Ericka Koger, a former correctional officer, accepted a plea deal in Orange County.

The introduction of contraband charge was dropped and Koger was sentenced to one year of probation on lesser misdemeanor charges. She won’t have a criminal record if she completes the terms of her probation.

One correctional officer was accused of smuggling cellphones into the Jefferson Correctional Institution using a false bottom in her boots. Officials said she earned more than $20,000 by selling the cellphones and other contraband.

Defense attorneys familiar with these cases explained why the officers frequently end up with little time in jail or prison and no criminal records.

"These corrections officers have no criminal history, so there's no reason to hit them harsher than anyone," said David Bigney, a defense attorney who has represented numerous law enforcement officers.

Being convicted of smuggling contraband can carry a five-year prison sentence. But of the 40 correctional officers and other prison employees who were arrested on these types of charges in the last three years, only eight were sentenced to jail or prison time, records show. Most of those who were sentenced to jail were sentenced for only a few months.

Most received probation or had their charges dropped altogether. Some people were allowed to kept their law enforcement certification.

"If the criminal code score is below a certain number, then prison is not mandatory,” Bigney said. “And you've got to assume that if somebody is working at a correctional facility, that they don't have a (criminal) background.”

Since October, FDOC Secretary Julie Jones has declined Channel 9’s repeated requests for an on-camera interview. She answered six questions via email, and said in part:

“The department is always looking for new and innovative approaches to reduce contraband introduction into our prisons. As you’re aware, we have many advanced means of not only detecting illegal cellphones but also intercepting their signals.”

Julie Jones said FDOC’s newly implemented procedures and advanced technology empower the agency to intercept contraband. She said K-9 units have conducted more than 2,300 searches in fiscal year 2016-2017.

"The dedication my staff has shown to this mission is incredible," Julie Jones said.

FDOC has a contract with Securus, a company that allows authorized cellphones to connect to commercial mobile wireless carriers, but eliminates contraband or unauthorized phones from completing any type of communications.

All phones within a facility and managed by the network can dial 911 for emergencies, because it’s not a “jamming” system. The company said a secure private network allows corrections agencies to pinpoint the areas that they want to secure from illegal communications.

FDOC tells 9 Investigates the technology is currently being used in Martin, Okeechobee and Wakulla counties.

Read Julie Jones’ responses to 9 Investigates’ questions below:

Talk to us about when you realized contraband -- specifically cellphones -- were a problem within state prisons.

Contraband has always been an issue in prisons, nationwide. The types of contraband evolve over time but as long as items are prohibited, inmates will attempt to get them in. After my appointment as Secretary, we began looking at ways to both improve our internal processes and procedures and to collaborate with our counterparts in other states to see what they’re doing to combat this issue. I’m proud to say that through our aggressive reforms, we are a leader in contraband interdiction and will continue to use the most advance technology that’s available today.

How has your administration worked to develop a plan to significantly reduce contraband cellphones within state prisons?

The Department is always looking for new and innovative approaches to reduce contraband introduction into our prisons. As you’re aware, we have many advanced means of not only detecting illegal cell phones but also intercepting their signals. We’ve also recently instituted new procedures and advanced technology to target all forms of contraband being introduced to our prison system. Just to give you an idea of the scale of our contraband interdiction operations: In FY 2016/17, our K9 Interdiction teams alone conducted 2,316 operations. The dedication my staff has shown to this mission is incredible.

Where are you in implementing that strategy?

We’ve already implemented numerous new initiatives, procedures and technology, and we will also continue to aggressively engage new ideas that can not only be implemented in our facilities but also be used as a model for other states.

Talk to me about the financial impact improving safety and security within state prisons could cost taxpayers, and why it’s important that you spare no expense when it comes to putting systems in place that can help reduce contraband.

The Department’s obligation is not only to those entrusted in our care but also the taxpayers of Florida who provide funding. Our ultimate goal is to reduce victimization and recidivism. Recidivism is at an all-time low and has a direct impact to taxpayers who live in communities across the state. We want all inmates to be productive members of society upon release. The inmates who continue to engage in illegal activity within our institutions are not helping themselves prepare for that eventuality. To counter these illegal activities, we have expanded our educational and vocational training, expanded our substance abuse treatment and we are also working with data in an unprecedented way to ensure we are providing inmates and offenders the right program, at the right time, to help prepare them for a successful release.

I’ve talked to a number of people who are former correctional officers, employees and even some state lawmakers who work directly with the criminal justice committees, and they all raise serious concerns about the turnover within state prisons. How much has that impacted the bad behavior the public has heard about when it comes to employees introducing contraband?

First of all, we have zero tolerance for officer misconduct. Any allegations made by fellow officers or inmates are immediately investigated by our Inspector General’s office, and all arrests made by our Inspector General are posted publicly on our website within days. Staffing is the root of many of our greatest challenges. The base pay increase recommended by the Governor and approved by the legislature last session is so critical to improving retention and recruitment for our prisons. The pay plan targets this issue by increasing the base pay for entry level Correctional Officers and offering bonuses where we have the highest, most critical, vacancies.

Where are you all in terms of pay and benefits for your correctional officers? And will reducing the minimum age for correctional officers help fill your ranks?

Governor Scott and the Legislature approved an increase in the base pay for correctional officers, an additional 10% increase in pay for officers who work in mental health units and a hiring bonus at high-vacancy institutions. Recently announced institutions offering the bonus can be found here. The pay raise went into effect October 1, 2017, and we are actively engaging both Florida and Georgia communities through our new media campaign to ensure they know we are eagerly looking for qualified new talent. Reducing the minimum age for correctional officers is currently being reviewed by the legislature. Allowing recent high school graduates to start training immediately upon graduation helps fill our ranks with eager young recruits.