The FBI arrested 46 current and former correction officers in a sting at nine facilities around Georgia, as a result of a two-year undercover operation went down early Thursday with raids by FBI at the prisons.
The indictments revealed “staggering corruption within Georgia Department of Corrections institutions,” said John Horn, the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia.
Among those arrested were five members of an elite squad aimed at busting up drug dealing in prison, called the Cobra unit. Also rounded up in the bust were two civilians and one inmate.
The probe found that prison guards and staff were smuggling contraband such as liquor, tobacco and cell phones into the cell blocks for money. Inmates used the illegal cell phones to commit wire fraud, money laundering and identify theft.
Officers are also charged with using their badges to facilitate drug deals on either side of the prison wall. The trafficking is said to include multiple kilos of cocaine and meth in exchange for thousands of dollars in bribe money.
Britt Johnson, special agent in charge of the Atlanta FBI office, told CNN that contraband cell phones in prisons are a tremendous problem.
“It makes a huge challenge for law enforcement,” Johnson said. “After you chase down, arrest and prosecute criminals and put them away for life, and they continue to direct crime on the streets from their jail cells.”
Johnson pointed to how a North Carolina prisoner was able to orchestrate a 2014 hostage-taking in Atlanta from inside prison on a cell phone.
“When an inmate can reach beyond prison walls and threaten and intimidate witnesses and prosecutors, it’s a breakdown of the judicial system,” he said.
The 46 officers along with two civilians and one inmate that were facing charges were expected to go in front of a federal magistrate in groups of four or five on Thursday. They were then expected to be turned back over to the custody of the Federal Marshals at undisclosed locations in Georgia, while they await trial.
Kevin Conlon and Leigh Waldman contributed to this report.