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Corrections officers earn thousands selling contraband in Florida prisons

More than 50 prison employees arrested
Prison bars
Posted at 3:55 PM, Nov 29, 2021

TAMPA, Fla. — As part of our “Crisis in Corrections” investigation, the ABC Action News I-Team is looking into how contraband is making its way into Florida’s prisons.

Dozens of officers have been arrested at facilities statewide, accused of profiting from the sale of contraband in prison and having sexual relationships with inmates. It comes at a time when staff shortages in Florida prisons are leading to dangerous conditions, more than $100 million in overtime costs, and even closures of facilities statewide.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, even when visitors weren’t allowed, contraband kept coming into prisons. And in many cases, Florida Department of Corrections employees were to blame.

The Department of Corrections posted a video on its website showing some of its efforts at contraband interdiction. Using drug dogs and a small army of officers, employees confiscate contraband from inside a prison’s walls. They seize drugs worth thousands of dollars and further punish inmates by putting them into solitary confinement.

“We had several inmates. We found cell phones, weapons. Those inmates were identified,” an officer briefs her superior in the video, following a raid.

Florida Department of Corrections Contraband Report for 2018-2019

Marijuana, cell phones, tobacco, and more  

According to its annual report, the Florida Department of Corrections seized 432 ounces of marijuana, nearly 7,500 cell phones and enough tobacco to make 1.1 million cigarettes.

How does it get there?

Sometimes the schemes are elaborate. One former inmate used a drone to drop cell phones into a prison yard. Reports show about a dozen arrests of people bringing contraband into Florida prisons during inmate visitations.

“I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it would be very, very hard for you to do that,” said a mother who has visited her son in Florida’s prisons regularly for the past decade.

She said she shows an ID, passes through metal detectors, and sends her belongings through an x-ray machine every time she visits.

Drone bringing in contraband to Florida prison

“They’ll pat you down. They’ll lift up your bra. They’ll shake your bra,” she said.

The mother doesn’t want to be identified because she fears her son may be retaliated against. She said during visits her son has confided that the level of contraband in Florida prisons is high.

“There’s drugs, there’s cell phones. You can get as much in there as you can out on the streets,” she said.

And she points out that there are frequent overdoses in the facility where her son is incarcerated.

More than 50 D.O.C. Employees arrested for bringing in contraband 

According to the department’s latest annual report, “contraband is a major source of violence” and “contraband introduction” has risen even as COVID limited visitations.

“There was no one they could blame it on,” the mother said. “There was more than ever in the last year when we weren’t able to visit our loved ones.”

The I-Team reviewed hundreds of arrest reports from the department’s Inspector General’s Office and found D.O.C. employees themselves are often to blame. More than 50 employees and contractors were arrested in the past two years for bringing in contraband.

“They’re supplementing their income and risking their job in order to bring this contraband in for the inmates,” the mother said.

An officer at Holmes Correctional Institution told investigators he “wanted to make more money than his job as a correctional officer was paying him” so he brought in “tobacco, marijuana and cell phones.” and even delivered a “steak and shrimp dinner” to an inmate for his birthday.

Cell phones and drugs brought into Florida prisons

Laurette Philipsen, who is now a prison reform advocate, previously served time at Lowell correctional institution. She said it was well-known that corrections officers were bringing in contraband.

“Cigarettes, Suboxone, weed. Those were the things I was aware of,” Philipsen said.

According to reports from other facilities, one employee smuggled cigars in his socks, another used a Marie Callender frozen microwave meal box to bring in two-hot spot devices, batteries, and hair clippers into the prison and another prison employee hid drugs wrapped in electrical tape, inside her body.

“There was one officer who worked the gate between the main unit and the annex and she was bringing in water bottles daily, but they were actually bottles filled with vodka,” Philipsen said.

She said almost anything was available for a price, including cigarettes, which sold in prison for $5 each on the inside.

“You would arrange for your family to send a money order, a $100 money order, to a P.O. Box. And when he got that money order, he would bring in that pack of cigarettes, and then they would be brought to you,” Philipsen said.

Corrections officers also accepted payments using Cash App, Western Union and Pay Pal, according to reports. A Columbia Correctional Institution officer received 97 wire transfers totaling $36,250 for cigarettes and cell phones. An officer at Appalachee Correctional Institution received 28 wire transfers for $12,000 from members of the same family. And an officer at the Northwest Florida Reception Center received 50 Cash App payments for more than $19,000.

Arrest affidavit for Florida corrections officer

Mother describes shakedown by a corrections officer 

The mother said a corrections officer even tried to extort her son.

“He had called and he said 'Mom I need you to send some Western Union money to some certain person,'” she said “I was like… I can’t do that. I said what’s this for? Because it’s not a normal way of putting money on his commissary. And he says, 'I can’t tell you Mom, I just need you to do it.'”

She said her son later confided that the officer threatened to give her son a disciplinary review or “D.R”, which would land him in confinement and affect his privileges and release date unless she sent a payment.

“It was $150. To me, a single mom, that’s a lot of money,” the mother said. “If they get that $150 from you for their protection, then how often is this gonna go on? I just didn’t want to start that vicious cycle, nor did I have the money.”

Sex is the currency for some prison contraband 

But not all payments were made in cash. More than a dozen arrest reports show inappropriate relationships between officers and inmates.

Among the worst:

  • Two officers from Lowell were arrested last year after their DNA matched samples female inmates saved on pieces of clothing,  
  • An education specialist at Florida State Prison was arrested after his DNA matched a rape kit sample collected from a female inmate 
  • A female officer at Liberty Correctional Institution was arrested for sexual misconduct after she was caught on camera performing a sex act on a male inmate 

“There was a lot of trading for sex, whether it be cigarettes or drugs,” Philipsen said.
She said male corrections officers would bring gifts for their “girlfriends” in prison in exchange for sex acts.

“It could be perfume, it could be makeup, could be a watch,” Philipsen said.

“Sometimes women got pregnant. Some didn’t hide the fact they were in a relationship with the women inside,” she said. “I believe we’re close to the boiling point.”

If you have a story you think the I-Team should investigate, email us at adam@abcactionnews.com


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In the ABC Action News series, Crisis in Corrections, the I-Team reveals the factors building to what state leaders call a breaking point in the Florida Department of Corrections. What’s at stake in the state’s largest agency and the third-largest prison system in the country and the impact beyond prison gates.