Prison captain used spy equipment to set up staff, report says

N.C. leaders have fired a prison captain who they say gave an inmate spy equipment to “set up” officers at Lanesboro Correctional Institution.

David Allen Aaron, who has worked with the North Carolina prisons since 2006, told a lieutenant and a prisoner at the Anson County prison that he was working with inmates to get information about corrupt staff, according to his March dismissal letter.

Aaron also said he had a database with information about “compromised” officers, the letter states. Compromised officers include those who smuggle in drugs and cellphones for money, state prison leaders have said.

An inmate provided prison leaders with a list of officers who Aaron told him to set up, Aaron’s dismissal letter states.

In 2017, Observer reporters investigated corruption within North Carolina prisons. Inmates, officers and prison experts said corrupt staff smuggle in most of the contraband drugs and cellphones that find their way into the prisons.

A Charlotte Observer investigation found that a hidden world of drugs, sex and gang violence thrives inside North Carolina prisons – and that officers who are paid to prevent such corruption are instead fueling it.

Here, according to the dismissal letter, is how one of Aaron’s interactions with an inmate played out:

Aaron gave two Lanesboro inmates an officer’s telephone number. An inmate entered the number into a watch cellphone, which inmates can’t legally possess under state law. Also in the phone was an unsent text message suggesting that the officer smuggle contraband into the prison.

Aaron then coached the inmate how to write an anonymous letter to prison staff. The letter told officers where to find the cellphone. This conversation with the inmate was recorded and found on a flash drive Aaron owned.

Aaron could not be reached for comment Friday. But in an interview with prison leaders, Aaron denied that it was his voice on the recording and said he didn’t know where the recording came from.

According to Aaron’s dismissal letter, he purchased the spy equipment — including a mini spy camera, a GPS device and subscription to check people’s criminal background — on a state-issued credit card. The purchases totaled about $300.

Aaron had the equipment mailed to his house, records show.

Anthony Gangi, who hosts Tier Talk, a radio talk show about corrections, said the incidents suggest loose financial controls at the prison.

“Who checks the purchases?” Gangi asked. “I’d be curious to see the policies on how purchases are done.”

Ronnie Clawson, a former Lanesboro sergeant who left the prisons in 2016, said he worked under Aaron for years.

If Aaron thought there were dirty staff members at Lanesboro, he should have instructed prison leaders to put them under surveillance, Clawson said.

Aaron was strict, Clawson said, recalling that prison supervisors liked him and that inmates did not.

Aaron, 35, earned about $54,000 a year, state records show.

It’s unclear how Aaron got a recording device into Lanesboro, which recently implemented stricter searches for people entering the prison, said John Bull, a spokesman for the state prisons.

“That particular component did not go unnoticed (by state leaders),” Bull said.

Bull said the prison told local and state law enforcement about Aaron’s dismissal, but he was not sure if charges are pending. It’s a felony in North Carolina to provide inmates with electronic devices.

Polkton police chief Matthew Norris said he was aware of the case but his department was not investigating it.

Lanesboro, a maximum-security prison located about 45 miles southeast of Charlotte, has a history of violence and corruption. It’s soon scheduled to be converted to a women’s prison — a major change that state leaders hope will improve safety and security.

Gavin Off has been the Charlotte Observer’s data reporter since 2011. Previously, he worked as a data reporter at the Tulsa World and at Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C.