ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia inmates used contraband cellphones to carry out financial fraud schemes from their prison cells, federal prosecutors in Atlanta said.
In 13 indictments unsealed this week, federal prosecutors accuse 51 people of participating in the scheme. Among those indicted are 15 current or former correctional officers and 19 current or former inmates at Autry State Prison in Pelham.
"We're hoping this case serves as a signal, a message to inmates and whatever correctional facility that has continuing criminal conduct that it will not be tolerated," U.S. Attorney John Horn said Thursday at a news conference.
Autry, which houses 1,700 adult male inmates, was shut down and more than 200 officers from across the state performed a raid Thursday at the prison, confiscating a number of cellphones and drugs. Horn said a shakedown will randomly occur at all 33 correctional facilities within the state in the next several months.
Correctional officers are accused of being bribed to smuggle the contraband cellphones in the prison, the indictments say. Officers are also accused of purchasing prepaid cards for the inmates.
The inmates used their smartphones to find victims through Google search or the white pages website and posed as law enforcement agents and called people around the country, telling them there was a warrant out for their arrest for missing jury duty, the indictments say. The indictments also allege that the inmates told the victims they could be arrested or pay a fine. They then allegedly directed people to buy prepaid cash cards and give them the number or to wire money to an inmate's prepaid debit card account.
The inmates carried out the scheme from at least January 2013 through October of last year, prosecutors said.
Horn said hundreds of victims across the country have been affected by the scam.
Cobb County Sheriff chief deputy Milton Beck said authorities received about 320 complaints over the past two years regarding the scam. He said around $37,000 was scammed from 41 people in the county.
"It's good to know today that these people will be held accountable," Beck said. "This money could be used for family members, groceries and to pay their mortgages. Instead, they were scammed by criminals who took advantage of law-abiding citizens."
The indictments are the latest development in an investigation by federal authorities into the use of contraband cellphones by Georgia prison inmates.
In an indictment filed earlier this month, federal prosecutors in Atlanta accused 17 people of participating in a drug trafficking ring that distributed significant quantities of crystal methamphetamine in metro Atlanta and elsewhere. Three inmates used contraband cellphones to manage a network of brokers, distributors and runners from their prison cells, prosecutors said.
Just a few months earlier, in September, federal prosecutors in Atlanta filed two other indictments that also targeted alleged criminal activity by Georgia inmates using contraband cellphones. Those indictments alleged that inmates used the cellphones to traffic drugs, smuggle in contraband, steal identities and, in at least one case, to arrange a violent attack on an inmate suspected of snitching.
The problem of contraband cellphones in prisons is a national one, but in Georgia prisons alone, more than 11,000 cellphones were seized in 2015, according to the state Department of Corrections. Some are brought in by prison staff, visitors and inmates returning form off-site work detail, while others are tossed or flown by drone over a prison fence.
Georgia Department of Corrections commissioner Homer Bryson said other ways cellphones have been smuggled into the prisons have been through clothes and furniture. A few months ago, he said, more than 100 cellphones were found inside a sofa that was almost brought into a prison.
Bryson said officials are hoping to improve screenings of potential employees and visitors entering prisons.
Associated Press Writer Kate Brumback contributed to this report.