Inside rolls of razor-wire fence, behind a network of heavy metal doors, locked alone in a North Carolina prison cell for 23 hours every day, a high-ranking gang leader directed accomplices in Georgia to carry out a contract killing.
Step by step over a smuggled cellphone, the prisoner instructed gang members in chilling detail:
“Gag him real tight. Put something in his mouth. Put something over his head.”
The plot, to kill a prosecutor’s father, was foiled in April 2014. The inmate – a founder of the United Blood Nation – was sentenced in November to life plus 84 months on kidnapping and related charges.
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Top state officials acknowledge there’s only one way an inmate in solitary confinement at maximum-security Polk Correctional Institution got a cellphone: An employee helped.
Prison staffers smuggle in cellphones and make thousands of dollars selling them to inmates they’re supposed to guard, a Charlotte Observer investigation found. Despite the abundance of phones, crooked officers are rarely caught and charged, records show.
Cellphones not only compromise the security of the prisons but also – as the kidnapping case illustrates – endanger public safety.
“The very idea of prison is to cut people off from society – cellphones undo that,” said Martin Horn, a former secretary of corrections in Pennsylvania who lectures at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “Cellphones make prison walls obsolete.”
‘In prison, money talks’
Former officers and inmates told the Observer that hundreds of contraband phones can be found in some of North Carolina’s 55 prisons on any given day.
A single sweep once netted more than 100 at Lanesboro Correctional Institution, according to Rufus Carter, a former sergeant at the Anson County prison. “If they found over 100 cellphones at Lanesboro,” Carter said, “I can promise you there were three times that number that weren’t found.”
In the state’s most dangerous prisons, employees sneak in most of the contraband, prison leaders acknowledge.
Employees sometimes hide phones and drugs inside their lunch containers – tucked in bags of chips, sandwiches or soda cans.
Unlike some states, North Carolina doesn’t routinely frisk employees when they enter prisons. The state also allows them to carry in clear plastic lunch boxes – an accommodation, officials said, for working 12-hour shifts but also a means of hiding phones.
When former inmate Timothy Ray Jones was at Scotland Correctional, he said, he paid a female correctional officer $150 to smuggle in an inexpensive flip phone, which he then used to run a drug ring.
Growing up in Robeson County, Jones said he got hooked on drugs and alcohol and broke the law to feed his addictions. He was first locked up in 1996, at age 17, for robbery and assault. He is now 37, and was released last summer after serving a sentence for felony larceny.
Jones said he enlisted the help of two female officers to run the drug ring. The three of them shared a secret code:
If the second officer rubbed her stomach when she entered his cell block, that meant drug-sniffing dogs were checking staff on their way into work. If she rubbed her head, the dogs weren’t there.
Jones said he used the phone to alert the first officer, who would be waiting outside with marijuana and sometimes cocaine. He let her know whether it was safe to smuggle in the drugs, concealed in fake 7-Up cans that unscrewed to reveal a hidden compartment.
For every pound of pot the officers smuggled in, Jones said, he rewarded them with $700 each – twice a month for two years. If his figures are accurate – and other inmates gave similar accounts of their own deals – that means the women made an extra $17,000 a year.
Money comes into prison in many ways. Friends and family members give officers cash to smuggle in, put money in an inmate’s personal bank account or on prison debit cards that inmates use to buy snacks and toiletries. Prisoners then transfer the funds to another card or wire it to other accounts.
“In prison,” Jones said, “money talks.”
Vulnerable to extortion
Several inmates shared stories of running drugs with the help of officers. All said cellphones were key to the operations. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they fear reprisal and criminal charges.
▪ A former Lanesboro inmate, who worked as a janitor at the prison, said for three years he delivered weekly contraband packages from officers to prisoners in solitary confinement. The vacuum-sealed bags usually held a pound of marijuana and a gram of crack, he said – also five cellphones because demand was so high.
Cellphones, the inmate said, were crucial to the smuggling. He used them to make sure it was safe to move the drugs.
▪ Another inmate serving time for first-degree murder said that, while he was at Odom Correctional Institution near Roanoke Rapids, he paid a female officer $2,500 for a typical shipment: 10 phones and a pound of marijuana. The officer smuggled in the contraband every two weeks for two years, the inmate said.
The prisoner, who is a gang member, said some inmates use phones to exact “rent” from families of other prisoners. “If they don’t pay, they will cut or stab the person,” he said.
Myra Nance-Pastore of Fayetteville told the Observer she got a call in 2015 from a gang member using a contraband phone at Maury Correctional Institution in eastern North Carolina. She said the caller demanded $700 in monthly “rent” so her son, who is in a wheelchair in prison, wouldn’t be hurt or killed.
Nance-Pastore refused to pay and reported the incident to officials. She said the gang member was transferred to another prison.
“I was worried because they could send people on the outside to where I lived,” she said. “It scared me to death. I really thought about moving, it scared me that bad.”
▪ A former habitual felon at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City said he and another prisoner paid a warehouse supervisor $8,000 to help smuggle in four hollowed-out printers, each hiding about 15 cellphones and five pounds of tobacco.
“To get the big stuff into the prison, you have to go through staff,” the former inmate said.
Staff members, in turn, become vulnerable to extortion.
“They do it once, that inmate owns them,” said Gary Harkins, former research and information director for the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network. “... You bring in marijuana, next time he wants you to bring in a cellphone. The next time, ammunition, a knife, harder stuff.”
Since 2012, police have charged more than 50 N.C. employees with smuggling contraband into prisons.
‘A slippery slope’
At Polk Correctional, north of Durham, where the kidnapping plot unfolded three years ago, Blood gang leader Kelvin Melton was locked up on the HCON unit – short for “High Security Maximum Control.” Prisoners are placed there when they pose a threat to other inmates, staff or the security of the prison itself.
Federal documents suggest that control over the unit began unraveling when correctional officer Gregory Dustin Gouldman was transferred there in August 2012 as sergeant on the night shift.
Gouldman was one of three officers who supplied Melton with phones, according to an inmate’s court testimony. One of the other officers was a member of the Bloods, he said.
Gouldman was indicted on charges of bringing cellphones, tobacco and drugs to inmates, and pleaded guilty to extortion. In January, he was sentenced to five years in prison. Contacted on Facebook before his sentencing, Gouldman refused to comment.
The indictment describes how he became involved with inmates.
Gouldman and other officers sneaked in cigarettes and alcohol at night for their own use, according to the indictment.
To appease unruly prisoners, who threw feces and urine at them – a tactic known as “gassing the guards” – the officers relaxed some rules inside HCON, according to the indictment. They agreed to pass notes – called “kites” – between inmates. They allowed inmates to cover up cell windows, preventing anyone from seeing in. They let prisoners smoke marijuana.
By early 2014, court records say, Gouldman had begun working as a “mule” and smuggling in contraband for three inmates. He earned $32,000 a year as an officer; prisoners paid him thousands of dollars more, the indictment states, for sneaking in drugs, tobacco and cellphones.
The first contraband Gouldman smuggled in for an inmate was a pack of cigarettes that he sold for $50, according to court records. Then came larger items, including a $7 cellphone for $300 and a package containing a cellphone, cigar, cash and two packs of cigarettes for $425.
Once, according to the indictment, Gouldman brought in two cellphones wrapped in electrical tape and tucked inside a Subway sandwich. Another time, he carried two phones inside a large bag of Lay’s potato chips.
“Every block had some (phones),” Jamey Wilkins, a former inmate on Polk’s HCON unit, testified during Melton’s trial. “I mean, a lot.”
Access to cellphones
As control over the HCON unit weakened, the kidnapping plot unfolded in early 2014.
Melton, 52, who went by the nicknames “Dizzy” and “Old Man,” had previously been convicted in New York of first-degree robbery and manslaughter. In 2012, the gang leader was sentenced to life for ordering the shooting of an ex-lover’s boyfriend in Raleigh.
He was locked in a cell with a narrow plexiglass window, a steel toilet and a concrete bed fitted with a mattress. Like other inmates on the unit, he was allowed out five times a week for an hour of “recreation” in an indoor area. He had to eat in his cell and was allowed no physical contact with other inmates or visitors.
But two times – on July 6, 2013 and Feb. 24, 2014 – Melton was cited for having a cellphone.
Gerald Beaver, a Fayetteville lawyer who represented Melton, said in an interview that there was “a lot of evidence that phones were all over the HCON block.” He described them as communal phones, smuggled in by officers and shared by inmates. Prisoners said in court that the officers passed phones from one prisoner to the next, hidden in magazines, clothes or food carts.
After the N.C. Court of Appeals upheld Melton’s sentence of life in prison in March 2014, he used a contraband cellphone to call Blood gang members on the streets. He ordered them to go after the assistant district attorney who prosecuted his case. He told them how to kill the woman, get rid of the body and clean the crime scene.
But on April 5, the gang members mistakenly went to the prosecutor’s father’s house in an upscale neighborhood east of Raleigh. They stunned him with a Taser, pistol-whipped him and kidnapped him.
Melton was on the phone with one of the gang members as they loaded Frank Janssen into the car, pistol-whipping him again.
At Melton’s orders, they drove to an Atlanta apartment, where they handcuffed Janssen and kept him taped to a chair inside a locked closet for four days.
According to court records, Melton was in constant contact with the kidnappers and dictated text messages to be sent to Janssen’s wife. One message said that if she contacts police, “we will send him back to you in 6 boxes. We will do a drive by and gun down anybody in you (sic) family and we will throw gernades (sic) in you (sic) window.”
In one telephone conversation, Melton instructed the kidnappers on how to kill Janssen and hide his body. He told them to either put a bag over his head or use a gun to “kill him and get it over with,” according to a female accomplice. She said that Melton also told them to kill the owner of the Atlanta apartment and his girlfriend.
The gang members had already bought bleach to clean the closet and shovels to dig the grave, records show. They picked out a spot near railroad tracks to bury Janssen.
On April 9, 2014, investigators rescued Janssen after tracking text messages and calls from the kidnappers. The kidnappers were found guilty and received sentences ranging from 20 to more than 50 years.
Melton was transferred to the ADX Super Max Federal Penitentiary in Colorado, which is designed to cut inmates off from the world. Other inmates include a Boston marathon bomber, a man who helped plot the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and four men behind the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center.
At Melton’s trial last November, Larry Dunston, the state’s former assistant superintendent of security services, testified that corrupt officers must have supplied Melton with cellphones.
“I confronted him about his cellphone,” Dunston testified. “He was explaining to me that there was more of my people on his side than his people on my side, meaning our correctional staff were involved with him.”
David Guice, N.C. chief deputy secretary of adult corrections and juvenile justice, said only a small percentage of officers is corrupt. But he acknowledged that cellphones and other contraband are “a big problem.”
“It bothers every person in this room when we find or hear of a staff member who has been compromised,” Guice said during an Observer interview with North Carolina prison leaders.
Wendell Hargrave, who oversees prison security, said there’s no foolproof system for stopping contraband.
“It’s going to happen,” he said. “But we take every measure we can to make sure it’s at a minimum.”
Because of the kidnapping, the N.C. General Assembly made it a felony to give an inmate a phone and a felony for an inmate to have one. Just two officers have been charged under that law from 2015-16, data show.
“This is the prison system basically protecting its own,” said Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News. “If they really believed their own rhetoric...then they would crack down harder on staff.”
The tougher criminal sanction doesn’t appear to have stopped the flow of phones into North Carolina’s prisons. In 2015, officers confiscated 556 contraband cellphones. In 2016, they found 535.
Inmates and officers say there are many, many more.
Staff writer Ames Alexander contributed.
Prison officers are almost never drug tested
In North Carolina’s prisons, it’s not uncommon to see people who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs, inmates and officers say.
And some of those people, they say, are staff members. They spoke of one prison officer who was so impaired at work that he was “barking like a dog” and another who couldn’t stand up without help at the beginning of his shift.
Since 2012, the Department of Public Service has fired at least 35 officers for alcohol or drug violations – some inside prison walls, records show.
Many former and current correctional officers told the Observer that they were never drug tested after they were hired.
Prison staff members in Virginia, New Jersey and Texas are randomly drug tested.
In early 2016, when asked why North Carolina doesn’t drug test officers, David Guice, the state’s chief deputy secretary for adult corrections and juvenile justice, told the Observer that his team was exploring the idea.
“Do I think it (random drug testing of officers) potentially is an appropriate response?” Guice asked. “I’d say yes.”
But more than a year later, the prisons still aren’t randomly drug-testing their employees.
-Ames Alexander and Gavin Off