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Maryland prison smuggling ring: Drugs, phones and porn were traded for PayPal payments and sex, feds allege

Federal authorities in Maryland dismantled yet another smuggling ring of prison guards and inmates allegedly peddling heroin, cellphones and pornography-loaded flash drives behind bars — in exchange for sex and payments via PayPal and Western Union money orders.

Nineteen people were arrested Tuesday — including three prison guards — and charged with running the smuggling ring at the state’s medium-security prison in Jessup.

The crackdown at the Maryland Correctional Institute Jessup pushes to nearly 200 the number of guards, inmates and civilian accomplices indicted in prison-corruption cases across Maryland over the last four years, said Michael Zeigler, acting secretary of the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

He credited Gov. Larry Hogan with prioritizing efforts to root out corruption in Maryland’s 24 prisons and detention centers. More cases were coming, Zeigler promised.

He declined, however, to say if Maryland suffered an outsized problem of prison corruption.

“It’s certainly not unique to Maryland,” said U.S. Attorney for Maryland Robert Hur.

Authorities revealed the latest case during a news conference Tuesday in Baltimore. Hur said a federal wiretap investigation had uncovered “truly troubling levels of corruption that permeated the Jessup facility.”

A Baltimore grand jury indicted the six prison-system employees, seven inmates and six civilian accomplices on federal racketeering charges. Online court records did not list their attorneys.

The investigation began more than two years ago after a prisoner tipped off authorities to the smuggling ring. Maryland Correctional Institute Jessup holds about 1,100 male prisoners. A staff of about 300 prison guards and civilian employees run the grounds.

The guards allegedly were sneaking an array of contraband into the prison — fentanyl, ecstasy, synthetic marijuana, prescription pills, alcohol and tobacco — by hiding the drugs under their clothing and in their hair, federal prosecutors wrote in charging documents.

“Some even put it in their body cavities,” Zeigler said. “It fuels violence by creating black markets … We will not tolerate it.”

Such contraband was highly sought after. A strip of Suboxone — intended to wean addicts off heroin — that costs $10 on the streets can fetch $50 behind bars, prosecutors wrote. They described a sophisticated network in which drugs were left at designated stash locations, such as in the library. Prisoners who held jobs allowing them to walk around took orders from other inmates and accepted deliveries from corrupt guards.

Prisoners passed around smuggled cellphones to pay for the contraband with Western Union money orders and PayPal. Some guards exchanged the drugs for sex, prosecutors wrote. Prosecutors alleged Lt. Owen Nesmith, 50, sexually assaulted three inmates.

The lieutenant allegedly smuggled in synthetic marijuana, Suboxone and cellphones to members of the Bloods street gang. One prisoner told authorities he would repay Nesmith by sending other Bloods to “spend time with” the lieutenant, prosecutors wrote.

“Nesmith later entered CI-3’s [Confidential Informant No. 3’s] cell and took photos of CI-3 with his shirt off,” prosecutors wrote in court documents. “Nesmith said he was taking the pictures to ‘have something of him’ when he was at home.’”

The two other prison guards indicted in the case include officers Patricia McDaniel, 26, and Janel Griffin, 40. Both women had relationships with prisoners, prosecutors wrote.

The seven male inmates indicted ranged from 25 to 39 years old.

One civilian remains on the run, and authorities declined to identify that person. The rest, if convicted, face as much as 20 years in prison for racketeering. Nesmith faces a maximum of life in prison.

In January 2018, 18 people — including two guards — were charged with smuggling heroin, cocaine and cellphones into the nearby maximum-security prison at Jessup. A year-long wiretap investigation led authorities to that smuggling ring. The guards were sentenced to serve three years of suspended prison terms.

Two months before that case, officials announced the arrest of a sergeant who worked at the prison and who they say ran the Crips street gang inside the walls. He pleaded guilty to state charges of participating in a criminal gang and is scheduled for sentencing in July.

In October 2016, federal agents indicted 80 people in the largest prison corruption case in Maryland history. Corrections officers and inmates were charged with smuggling heroin, cocaine, cellphones and pornography into the Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County on the Eastern Shore. Seventy-seven people were convicted, officials said, including 16 correctional officers who were sentenced to as much as six years in prison.

In Baltimore, the Black Guerrilla Family street gang had the run of the city detention center. In 2013, investigators found imprisoned gang members enjoyed all the pleasures of freedom with help from the guards — four of whom were believed impregnated by inmates. Some 40 people were convicted, and Hogan later closed the prison because of decrepit conditions at the Civil War-era structure.

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/Tim_Prudente

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