Two sophisticated rings, one that used a state prison dairy farm, a bakery and the State House grounds as part of a network to smuggle drugs, mobile phones and other items into prisons, have been broken up by authorities.
Indictments by the state grand jury naming 17 alleged smugglers and their accomplices were unveiled Friday in a crowded Richland County courtroom. The indictments cap an investigation of more than a year.
The illegal trade generated thousands of dollars for inmates in state prisons, where a small bit of tobacco in the smoke-free facilities can cost $25 on the black market, and an illegal mobile phone can be sold for “hundreds if not thousands of dollars,” one indictment said.
A key hub of one of the alleged smuggling rings was the Wateree Correctional Institution, a 7,000-acre prison farm in Sumter County where a herd of about 900 cattle and multi-million dollar milk production facilities provide milk for the entire S.C. Department of Corrections prison network.
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The contraband — cell phones, tobacco, drugs and other items — was brought to the edge of the sprawling Wateree farm in duffel bags by outside co-conspirators. The bags were placed at “predetermined hiding locations on the prison dairy farmland,” the indictment said.
Then, “inmates on the dairy work shifts retrieved the contraband on the farmland and took it back to the dairy facilities,” an indictment said.
The items were then placed into milk crates that were “ultimately trucked to all of the institutions in the prison system,” an indictment said.
Other favored types of contraband reaching the approximately 20,000 inmates in the state prison system were synthetic cannabinoid, called K2 by inmates, methamphetamine, suboxone, cocaine and crack cocaine.
Friends, wives, girlfriends, relatives, former inmates and others including at least one correction department employee, were involved, officials said.
Smuggling hubs also made use of:
▪ Trips to a Columbia bakery that sells bread to the prison system. Inmates assigned to trucks that picked up the bread would retrieve contraband from secret places near the bakery and put it on the truck. Then the bread — and the contraband — would be taken to a food warehouse at Goodman Correctional Institution in Richland County. Inside the prison, the contraband would be broken down into smaller packets for distribution using the prison’s trucks that delivered bread throughout the system, an indictment said.
▪ The prison cleaning crew that tends the bushes and cuts the lawn on the State House grounds. Co-conspirators regularly hid contraband at various locations “around the State House and state office buildings,” an indictment said. Favorite hiding places were the recycling or trash bins. Packages of methamphetamine, marijuana, and tobacco were among the items smuggled there, an official said.
Inmates on the cleaning crew would then pick up the contraband and bring it back to a prison, where it was broken down and eventually distributed throughout the prison system.
Creighton Waters, a top prosecutor in state Attorney General Alan Wilson’s Office, called one of the reported smuggling rings “extremely sophisticated and extremely lucrative.”
“A perfect system”
Baraka Ramos, an inmate serving time on drug charges, was the leader of the ring at Wateree, Waters told state circuit court Judge Clifton Newman at a bond hearing for the defendants on Friday.
“He is a businessman like any other,” Waters said about Ramos, describing how he was always on an illegal cell phone giving orders.
Better known as “Christ” by other inmates, Ramos oversaw an extensive network that brought drugs, tobacco and cell phones to specific locations where lower security inmates had access, Waters said.
At least one corrections department employee was allegedly involved in the ring, bringing contraband into the prison through a duffel bag, Waters said.
The Wateree smugglers’ network was “a perfect system in which contraband could be smuggled into the system,” Waters said. “Quite impressive.”
Ramos faces several charges, including conspiracy, meth and marijuana trafficking.
Authorities announced the charges against Ramos on the day he was due to be released from prison for a previous drug trafficking charge, the inmate’s lawyer said.
Alex Postic, who represents Ramos, told the judge that Ramos planned to move to Horry County and become an electrician.
“He’s no El Chapo,” Postic said, referring to an alleged drug kingpin from Mexico on trial in New York.
After being denied bond, Ramos stood up from the side of the courtroom and asked the judge for permission to speak, which the judge granted.
“A lot of this stuff is not true,” Ramos said. “Let me out so the truth can come to light. I was going home today.”
In a separate alleged conspiracy, contraband was packaged in Hawaiian Punch bottles and thrown over prison fences, Waters said. The bottles were color coded so those receiving the items would know what the packages contained and who to deliver it to, Waters said. The prosecution called this method of alleged smuggling “throwovers.”
The “jugs” or “bombs,” as the packages were called, contained meth and other drugs, cell phones and parts, tobacco and other types of contraband, Waters said.
Waters, the attorney general’s office prosecutor, testified that in 2017, Laurens County deputies pulled over Joshua John and found the contraband packages in the trunk of his car.
Authorities obtained a search warrant for a house connected to John. Inside, police found what Waters called a “staging area” for the contraband Hawaiian Punch bottle packages. The area contained scales, colored tapes and a key to the coding system, according to Waters.
A lawyer representing John told Newman that his client attended Lander University, where he excelled in a computer science program. John’s father testified on Friday that after his son’s arrest in 2017, he saw a change in his son and that “he has been a joy.”
John was charged with conspiracy, furnishing contraband to an inmate as well as drug charges.
Travis Kemp was the leader of the ring, according to Waters.
In October 2017, authorities arrested Kemp after he allegedly threw contraband packages over a prison fence, Waters said. After he bonded out of jail to wait for his trial, he was pulled over the next day in Laurens County with John, and authorities found more contraband packages, according to Waters.
Kemp was charged with conspiracy, trafficking meth, heroin and cocaine and other allegations related to selling drugs as well as gun and other charges.
“This drives that illegal black market and leads to violence in the prison,” Waters told Newman about the smuggling networks. “Tobacco drove it. Cell phones really drove it.”
Numerous law agencies helped investigate the case. Besides the state Attorney General’s office, the State Law Enforcement Division, sheriff’s departments in Laurens and Richland counties, the Department of Corrections investigation unit and the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office were involved. A state grand jury was used for the indictments in part because, unlike a county grand jury, its jurisdiction is statewide.
“Everybody’s seen Shawshank Redemption”
Bryan Stirling, director of the state Department of Corrections, said that ever since the first prison opened, people have smuggled stuff in.
“Everybody’s seen Shawshank Redemption,” he said, referring to the 1994 movie about a prison.
Cell phones in prison, however, are inflaming the contraband issue, according to Stirling and other law enforcement officials who spoke at a news conference Friday.
Wilson, the attorney general, added that cell phones endanger corrections department employees and inmates just trying to serve their time.
Making the issue worse is that the federal government has yet to allow the jamming of cell phone signals in prisons, law enforcement leaders said. A federal law makes it illegal to interfere with signals.
Most people believe that when a problem is identified, “you find a solution and you do it,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said. “Our federal government hadn’t done that.”
Stirling also said law enforcement officials are working with the telecommunications industry to create technology that could address the phone problem.
The prison system has also taken simple steps like putting up 50 foot golf netting around prisons to stop the throw-overs. Now, they are beginning to use tools to alert them when drones are flying over prisons to drop off illegal materials.
Stirling and others are also pushing for harsher punishment for people who help inmates get contraband into prisons. The cell phones are the focus of their efforts though.
“It’s a tool they don’t need to have,” Stirling said. “They need to talk to their family members. They need to have communication, but we need to know what they’re saying and it needs to be for the right reasons.”