According to a recent article in the Associated Press, over 100 federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) workers have been arrested, convicted or sentenced for crimes since the start of 2019, including a warden indicted for sexual abuse and an associate warden charged with murder. Just last week, a former BOP corrections officer was arrested on second-degree murder charges for shooting her boyfriend … who was a former inmate at the prison where she worked. One of the more pervasive problems for the BOP is staff involved in the smuggling of contraband into the prison, which poses a danger to staff and the general population. Drugs, cigarettes and cell phones are on the list of the most desired items in prison.
According to Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) data, cell phones were the most common type of contraband recovered from fiscal years 2012 through 2014 when they reported that over 8,700 cell phones were recovered during this period; over 2,000 more incidences than the next most common contraband type, weapons. In 2019, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), introduced legislation to prevent contraband cellphone use in federal and state prison facilities by allowing state and federal prisons to use cell phone jamming systems. The bill never passed and was criticized by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which stated, “Cell phone jamming doesn’t just block inmate calls — it can also interfere with mobile 9-1-1 calls and public safety communication.”
Cell phones are a major problem inside of prisons. Ft. Dix New Jersey, home to a large Low Security prison and a satellite prison camp, has had its share of cell phone fiascos. NBC reported in 2017 that Ft. Dix inmates were trolling the web for child pornography from smuggled cell phones. Last October 2020, a former Ft. Dix inmate was arrested for using a drone to drop tobacco and cell phone chargers into the prison yard. In January 2021, The Trentonian reported that 1,046 cell phones were found at Ft. Dix, a Low security federal prisons … a prison that has about 3,000 inmates … so one-in-three inmates had a phone.
The fact is, most contraband is introduced into federal prisons by BOP staff. It is also a federal crime (see 18 USC 1791) that can result in prison time for both staff and additional prison time for inmates (mostly through loss of Good Conduct Time).
In October, 2019 the Southern District of Florida indicted Victor Manuel DeJesus, a correctional officer at FCI Miami. DeJesus brought in drugs, cell phones, and SIM cards into the prison to sell to inmates. He was subsequently sentenced to 70 months in federal prison. The crackdown on cell phones inside prison was supposed to be a priority after a BOP corrections officer was targeted and murdered through the coordinated attack led by inmates using cell phones. There are now claims that a group of industrious BOP staff were so fed up with their fellow staff members smuggling in contraband that they set up their own sting operation in FCI Miami akin to an unsanctioned Fast & Furious-type operation. Their plan was to work with inmates and allow them to smuggle cell phones and other goods into the prison in exchange for giving up the names of staff members who were involved of the introduction of contraband.
Last October 2020, a case manager and three Special Investigative Services (SIS) officers at FCI Miami were stopped before being able to report to work and put on administrative paid leave. They were believed to be a part of an elaborate operation that involved recruiting two inmates to run cell phones, cigarettes, steroids and other contraband through FCI Miami, a Low Security federal prison.
“Magic” (his full name known among the inmates but withheld here), was one of those inmates. Magic, who I met with and reviewed his voluminous amount of detailed documentation, was sentenced to federal prison for 51 months on fraud charges. Once he landed at FCI Miami, according to a lawsuit in the Southern District of Florida, he was approached by Jose Perez, a case manager at FCI Miami to begin moving contraband and reporting back to SIS staff about how the material was being transported. SIS is the investigative arm inside of BOP facilities responsible for nabbing bad inmates, not bad staff. According to court documents, Magic kept a book of notes, sent text messages to SIS on rogue staff and briefly had conversations with someone who stated that he was an FBI agent.
According to Magic, Perez offered him a deal that would get him out of prison if he could help. Freedom is always a good incentive. Within weeks, Magic was moving contraband, mostly cell phones and steroids, and reporting it via text messages to a phone designated by his FCI Miami handlers.
Magic also enjoyed the fruits of the operation, swimming in money for his commissary account, smoking illegal cigarettes and having virtually non-stop use of a cell phone. “During COVID-19,” Magic told me in an interview, “the guards were hardly around, we were locked in our cells and the cell phone [an iPhone X] passed the time away.” How much do iPhone’s go for in prison? According to Magic, around $7,000.
The job for Magic was no easy task as he had to conduct operations while navigating two noted Puerto Rican gangs who notoriously run FCI Miami’s inmate life; the Ñetas and El Grupo de los 27. Gang operations in Low security prisons like FCI Miami are uncommon but because the prison houses the BOP’s only male, Spanish-speaking Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP), it has become a hub for many hispanic inmates to get closer to home. Many inmates who would normally be put into higher security prisons are given management variables, sending them to the lower security prison so they can participate in the popular prison program that can knock a year off of time served for successful completion.
BOP staff at FCI Miami have complained about safety at the institution because of the higher security inmates there. In a letter to the House Judiciary Committee in 2016, claims of low graduation rates in the RDAP program (under 5%) and inmates who were transferred because of disciplinary infractions were returned back to the institution to participate in RDAP.
“I quickly became a trusted confident,” Magic said. He was the “shot caller,” a prison term for representative, for a small group of non-gang, white inmates. Before long he was collecting money on gambling debts, keeping the books for the gangs and placing orders for goods moving into FCI Miami. Cell phones, steroids, phone chargers, all at premium prices, moved into the facility through BOP staff. “I had no problems with the gangs and felt that prison life necessitated a phone, especially during COVID-19 when we were locked in cells,” Magic told me, “but because I felt like my actions were sanctioned by the BOP, what did I have to lose?” Magic told me that he was never asked to provide information on inmates receiving the phones and other goods as they would eventually be found by other staff through the normal operations of the prison.
There are severe penalties for inmates in possession of a cell phone, which is a Greatest Severity infraction in the BOP. The punishment means time spent in a cell known as Special Housing Unit (SHU), loss of phone and email use, loss of commissary, and loss of Good Conduct Time (41 days). As an added measure, inmates are usually sent to another prison facility. At FCI Miami, cell phones have so proliferated the compound that there is no shipping of inmates to other institutions for phone infractions and rarely are the confiscated phones forensically examined, another complaint by BOP staff.
The project was supposed to be top secret, and kept from everyone outside of a small group of SIS agents and Perez. However, on July 17, 2020, Magic was nabbed with a cell phone by a corrections officer who was outside of the operation. An incident report was written up and Magic had 41 days of good time taken from him. Magic said that Perez assured him that the infraction would disappear and to play along. In October 2020, very much still moving goods into FCI Miami, Magic had another corrections officer, again one not involved in the sting operation, demand to search his cell. “I told him, wait a minute, there is more to this story and I need to speak to Case Manager Perez,” Magic told me. The officer told Magic and his cellmate to step outside the cell and when it was searched there were 4 cell phones, bottles of steroids, phone chargers and $15,000 worth of stamps. It was a haul. Magic was transferred to Special Housing and lost another 41 days of good time.
Magic had had enough and stated that he needed to speak with FCI Miami Warden Jenkins, Associate Warden Colbert, Associate Warden Broton and Captain Soodeko, all of whom were listed in Magic’s federal complaint. When the meeting began, Magic told them of the elaborate scheme and his involvement. Magic left no stone unturned and provided text messages from the phones seized from his cell, which showed texts with Perez and the SIS. Warden Jenkins immediately transferred him to FDC Miami, another prison near the federal courthouse in Miami, and launched an investigation. Perez and three SIS staff members were placed on paid administrative leave in October 2020.
Once at FDC Miami, Magic hoped that he was on his way to being exonerated and a trip home. However, as time wore on he believed that the prison was trying to cover up the entire operation. Magic sent administrative remedies to the Regional Director, who ordered him released into general population. However, once in general population, the other inmates at FDC Miami knew of Magic’s involvement in the operation and believed him to be an informant. Magic was threatened and extorted until he sought protective custody.
On March 4, 2021, Magic received word that the incident report for the large bust in October 2020 had been expunged and received a verbal confirmation from an FDC Miami captain Weirich that the BOP Region would soon clear the earlier July 2020 incident.
Time went on and Magic was due to be released from prison but the July 2020 incident was still on his record along with the lost 41 days of good time. This time Magic went outside the BOP and directly to the federal courts stating that his rights had been violated and filed a 2241 seeking restoration of his 41 days of good time lost. Still in prison, his original date of release passed and then on July 16, 2021, he was suddenly let go from prison. A few days after that a federal judge denied his 2241 petition but on the grounds that the October 2020 incident report had been suddenly expunged. The judge’s order stated:
“The Petitioner only seeks the restoration of his 41 days of good conduct time.” In fact, when NAME REDACTED filed his initial and amended petitions, he was requesting the restoration of 41 days of good time credit. The good time credit has apparently been restored, and the incident report expunged from NAME REDACTED’s record, and he has been released from BOP custody.”
According to a source who has direct knowledge of the people alleged to be involved in the operation, Perez and the SIS agents returned to work at FCI Miami in September 2021 after nearly a year of paid time off and Magic is trying to start his life anew.
It’s as if nothing happened … except it did.
I reached out to the BOP for comment and they did not respond. I asked Magic if any investigative arm of the government ever spoke to him, “I spoke with someone at the Office of Inspector General for a few minutes to confirm that everything I told the warden and his staff was true about the operation. It is true. I never heard from OIG again.”