Thursday, October 13, 2022

Probe: Prison officers deliver drugs to inmates: Lucrative scheme is leading to major rise in overdoses

Paul Egan at the Free Press published this expose on staff smuggling

drugs into MDOC causing overdose deaths to skyrocket.

You can see a video with a whistle blowing family member here:

Probe: Prison officers deliver drugs to inmates: Lucrative scheme is

leading to major rise in overdoses

Egan, Paul 

Detroit Free Press 6 Oct 2022 

LANSING − State prison drug overdoses have skyrocketed during the

pandemic, and there is strong and growing evidence that points to

corrections officers or other prison staff as significant suppliers.

Last year, 252 state prisoners overdosed on drugs — nearly quadruple the

number in 2019.

That's despite the fact in-person prison visits — long pointed to by

Michigan Department of Corrections officials as a major source of

smuggled drugs — were halted in most of 2020 and 2021 to curb the spread

of COVID-19. Even before the pandemic started, officials took steps to

eliminate prison mail as an illicit source.

Officials acknowledge that removing visits and mail as major sources of

prison drugs leaves only two possibilities — drugs coming "over the

fence" by methods such as packages dropped by drones or drug-filled

basketballs thrown into prison yards; and drugs smuggled in by

corrections officers, or other staff or contractors.

A monthslong Free Press investigation found:

Recent state and federal investigations point to prison officers as

participating in lucrative schemes to deliver drugs to inmates;

It is relatively easy for officers to bring drugs inside prison, partly

because of a significant weakness in the way the department staffs the

"gate" where employees enter prisons, and partly because already weak

gate policies are frequently ignored or undermined by supervisors;

The Michigan State Police, the outside agency that most frequently

investigates prison drug smuggling and overdose deaths, defers to

Michigan Department of Corrections officials in the handling and

processing of evidence, frequently describing its role as "assisting"

prison officials, rather than investigating them.

Prison personnel and Freedom of Information Act policies both obscure

and contribute to the scope of the problem by shielding employee

discipline records from public scrutiny.

"They keep coming up with these explanations that don't make any sense,

and frankly, it's offensive," said Solomon Radner, a Southfield attorney

whose 2019 lawsuit over a prisoner's drug overdose death at Lakeland

Correctional Facility in Coldwater, which accuses some prison officials

of complicity in drug trafficking, was recently revived by a federal

appeals court.

"The reality of this is, the only way they're (drugs) getting in is with

certain guards allowing it in. If they were serious about not letting it

in, it wouldn't get in."

Overdoses increased as outside contact fell

Late in 2017, the department began photocopying all mail not sent from

law offices before prisoners received it as a way of stopping the

delivery of drugs that can be distributed through clear plastic strips

and even hidden behind stamps. Prison visits were banned completely for

a solid year, from March 2020 until March 2021. When visits resumed,

they were through plexiglass until September of last year. Though

contact visits are again permitted, they are under continued

restrictions, with only one embrace allowed at the start of the visit

and another at the end.

Meanwhile, the number of prison overdoses more than doubled in 2020, to

136 from 64 in 2019, records show. In 2021, overdoses nearly doubled

again to 252.

Chris Gautz, a spokesman for Department of Corrections Director Heidi

Washington, said the increased overdoses during the pandemic don't

necessarily point to employees as a primary source; but he said he does

see a connection with the more than $27 million in federal stimulus

funds state prisoners received from the federal government. Also, there

has been a big increase in "fake" legal mail, which is not subject to

being photocopied, and increased prison use of Narcan, the opioid

overdose drug, with each dose generally counted as an overdose, even if

officials later learned the unconscious prisoner was in fact suffering

from low blood sugar, not an overdose, he said.

"The smuggling of contraband, in all its forms, is a threat to our

facilities and a danger to prisoners and staff and is taken with the

utmost seriousness," Gautz said. "Anyone who comes into our prisons

presents the potential for contraband introduction and we are constantly

assessing all vulnerabilities."

Corrections officers who reach the top of the pay scale are paid about

$60,000 a year, not counting overtime. But the strong demand for drugs

inside prison walls, combined with limited supply, means they can make

thousands more through smuggling.

Thomas Daugherty, 47, worked as a corrections officer at Parnall

Correctional Facility near Jackson until December 2021, when he was

caught smuggling 150 strips of suboxone — a drug used to treat opioid

withdrawal that is frequently abused as a painkiller — to an inmate.

Daugherty, who pleaded guilty to a five-year felony in July and is

expected to be sentenced Oct. 25, told investigators he was paid $5,000

per delivery and had made five or six deliveries in the six months prior

to his arrest, according to Michigan State Police records the Free Press

obtained through the state Freedom of Information Act.

A federal grand jury on April 6 indicted Brandon Keith McGaffigan, 30,

of Flint, who was a corrections officer at Thumb Correctional Facility

in Lapeer when he allegedly possessed methamphetamine, cocaine and

heroin with the intention of selling the illegal drugs inside the

prison, in January.

But state and federal smuggling charges against prison employees are

relatively rare. Prison employees suspected of smuggling drugs or other

contraband are issued "stop orders" intended to prevent them from

working inside the system again. Sometimes, local prosecutors decline to

bring charges, Gautz said.

Both prisoners and officers who have come forward with information about

drug smuggling by prison staff have said they quickly became targets for


When Ventron Lott was found dead at Macomb Correctional Facility on Dec.

9, 2021, Lott's mother, Joan Johnson, thought his death resulted from a

seizure. Her son had just called her to tell her he was not receiving

his required anti-seizure medication, she said. Before she could follow

up on that, a prison official called to tell her Lott was dead.

A few weeks later, Johnson received a phone call from another Macomb

prisoner, Marshall Forrest. He told Johnson her son, who was housed in

the prison's residential treatment facility, died from an overdose. The

drugs, Forrest said, were supplied by the prisoner who bunked with Lott,

who in turn received the drugs from a corrections officer.

Johnson then obtained her son's autopsy report and was shocked to learn

he died from an overdose of fentanyl and heroin. Prison officials never

told her that, she said.

Gautz said prison officials often don't know the cause when they inform

family members of a prisoner's death.

Forrest, 60, who is serving a life sentence for a 1998 murder in Berrien

County, has since written a series of letters, backed by a sworn

affidavit, to Johnson and to investigators with the MSP, the U.S.

Attorney's Office and others. Forrest alleges widespread prison drug

dealing, controlled by gangs and certain prison officers, and the use of

smuggled cellphones and mobile platforms such as Cash App to make and

receive payments.

Forrest, who in some of the letters identifies corrections officers by

name, said he was stabbed in the face in an April 4 chow hall prisoner

attack he believes was orchestrated by prison staff.

"Not one MDOC staff of the four present inside the kitchen stopped this

prisoner ... from continuing on with stabbing me," Forrest said in a

sworn and notarized July 6 affidavit Forrest provided to the Free Press.

Gautz denied Forrest is being harassed and said prison video shows

officers came to his aid within five to 10 seconds.

A Free Press reporter met with Forrest for two hours at Earnest C.

Brooks Correctional Facility near Muskegon.

"I want to speak out. I almost lost my life already. I might get lucky

and someone is going to look at this," said Forrest, whose cell at

Macomb Correctional Facility was across from Lott's.

Forrest said Lott approached him on the night of his overdose, looking

sick and disheveled.

Lott said he'd snorted drugs given to him by the prisoner he bunked

with. Lott thought he was snorting Wellbutrin — a prescription

anti-depressant — but later learned he was given a mix of heroin and

fentanyl. Lott also named a corrections officer he said gave the drugs

to the prisoner he bunked with, Forrest said. The Free Press is not

naming the officer, pending further verification.

Lott gave Forrest his mother's phone number and asked him to contact her

if anything happened to him, he said.

Forrest said he did not place that call for about five weeks because he

felt intimidated by corrections officers who he said prevented him from

speaking to Michigan State Police officers investigating Lott's death.

He said he decided to come forward once he concluded the incident was

going to be swept under the rug.

He said he was interviewed by an MSP investigator in March, but has had

no follow-up.

Shanon Banner, a spokeswoman for the MSP, would neither confirm nor deny

whether an investigation into Forrest's allegations is underway.

Since meeting with the Free Press, "I am being harassed continually,"

Forrest wrote in a Sept. 22 email from prison.

Officers, too, have complained of harassment after speaking out about

suspected drug dealing by prison staff.

Brent Rohrig was a resident unit manager at the G. Robert Cotton

Correctional Facility near Jackson when he spoke up about a corrections

officer he suspected was smuggling heroin to prisoners.

The Corrections Department opened an investigation — into Rohrig,

alleging he had misused the email system. The internal affairs

investigator the department assigned to comb through Rohrig's emails was

the ex-wife of the officer he accused of smuggling. Rohrig said that

move endangered both him and the prisoners who had confided in him about

the illegal drugs.

The department fired Rohrig in 2017, while the other officer remained on

the job. Only months later, after Rohrig went public, did the department

fire the officer, accusing him of smuggling unspecified contraband,

overfamiliarity with prisoners, and "conduct unbecoming" a corrections

officer. He was never criminally charged.

In 2018, a civil service hearing officer blasted the department and

ordered Rohrig reinstated with back pay, saying the trumped-up

allegations against him were "the essence of disparate, arbitrary,

disproportionate discipline."

Rohrig also sued the department and received a $50,000 settlement and

was allowed to retire early, said his Detroit attorney, Jonathan Marko.

Rohrig told the Free Press that after his firing and reinstatement

received media attention, he heard from numerous prison employees who

felt the department had retaliated against them for speaking out about

prison issues.

Lax front gate practices

How do officers bring drugs into prisons, since they pass through metal

detectors and are subject to inspection of their bags and random

pat-downs when they arrive for work?

Three current or former corrections officers assigned to three different

prisons, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of prison

security issues, told the Free Press corrupt officers can take advantage

of a significant and long-standing weakness in the way the gate is


Though an officer is stationed at the gate to check bags and perform

random pat-downs for more than 16 hours out of every day, many

facilities do not assign a full-time gate officer during "third shift,"

which is typically from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Officers are subject to search

upon arrival for that shift, but once the shift begins, until near the

end of the shift, only the "bubble officer" — so named because he or she

typically works inside a compartment shielded by transparent glass or

plastic — is present at the gate. That officer, who unlike the gate

officer actually controls the opening of the gate, can attempt to view

the inside of an officer's bag through the window but can't perform

pat-downs because of standing instructions not to leave the bubble, the

sources said. Officers who leave the prison to grab lunch or go to their

vehicles during a break, midway through that third shift, can be

confident they are unlikely to be subjected to a pat-down upon their

return, the sources said.

Gautz said it is prison policy for an officer to be called to the gate

whenever an employee enters. He could not say whether that policy is

always followed.

Earl Booth, a corrections officer at the Charles E. Egeler Reception and

Guidance Center near Jackson, has worked frequently at the front gate,

including more than two years as the full-time front gate officer,

between 2013 and 2015. Booth says a minority of supervisors repeatedly

violate front gate security rules. Officers rightfully fear retaliation

if they try to insist the rules be followed, he said.

Between 2013 and 2017, Booth documented and reported at least 10

incidents in which five sergeants and lieutenants tried to enter the

prison in violation of MDOC rules. Most involved supervisors who refused

to take off their belts or empty their pockets before passing through

the metal detector, instead just setting off the detector and demanding

a pat-down.

Booth has complained in writing, not only about the supervisors who

violated gate policy, but about the supervisors of the supervisors, for

failing to investigate the incidents and impose discipline. Nearly every

supervisor Booth has complained about has since been promoted, records


Booth meanwhile, who had no discipline on his record from when he joined

the department in 2000 until 2012, when his harassment complaint against

a lieutenant was upheld, has been subjected to a series of

investigations and discipline he believes are retaliatory.

In 2017, Booth reported a different lieutenant for screaming at him to

open the gate, when there was no gate officer present and Booth was

working in the bubble; and for repeatedly failing to present his

identification card at the gate, as required. Records Booth obtained

through FOIA show a captain then tipped off the lieutenant about Booth's

complaint. Booth's complaint was not investigated, but the lieutenant

brought his own complaint against Booth for doodling on a piece of paper

while working. Booth was found guilty of three work rule violations,

including dereliction of duty, and suspended for three days without pay.

Booth later obtained records that show that in 2019, the captain who

tipped off the lieutenant was twice caught trying to enter the facility

with his cellphone. That's a serious infraction that can bring

discipline up to and including dismissal. But that captain, who by 2019

had been promoted to inspector and has since been promoted again to a

position in internal affairs, received only a written reprimand for the

first offense and a one-day suspension for the second offense, records


Gautz said those punishments are standard for someone with no discipline

on their record. "Mistakes happen; we understand that," he said.

Officials do not believe the lieutenant screamed at Booth, and the

captain was notifying the officer in charge of the shift, who happened

to be the lieutenant, that a front gate incident had occurred, not

intentionally tipping anyone off, he said. Gautz declined to comment on

the other incidents Booth cited.

"Staff are flat-out intimidated and afraid to report arrogant and

privileged supervisors that feel they can do whatever they want, and

burn us when we report them," said Booth, who in January, after he was

contacted and interviewed by the Free Press, sued the department in

federal court over discipline-related issues.

The Free Press has reviewed documentation related to all of the

incidents Booth complained about, but is not naming the supervisors,

partly because Booth is not accusing those supervisors of smuggling

drugs or other contraband. Still, Booth said such disregard for the

rules — and reprisals against those willing to enforce the rules —

undermines overall security.

"People are afraid to report it — they're afraid to do anything," Booth

said. "That's how stuff gets in."

Department investigates itself

When overdose deaths or discoveries of significant amounts of smuggled

drugs inside the prisons result in the police being called, Corrections

Department officials and employees are not treated as potential

suspects. Instead, they help run the investigation.

On Aug. 26, a sharp-eyed officer noticed several packages attached to a

trash compactor being delivered to Lakeland by Waste Management Inc.,

the prison's trash contractor. The packages contained marijuana,

tobacco, suboxone and three cellphones and chargers. In an Aug. 31 email

to the Free Press, MSP Detective Sgt. Matthew Berry described the

department's role as "assisting the Michigan Department of Corrections

with an investigation" of the incident.

That's despite the fact officials at Lakeland specifically, and the

Michigan Department of Corrections more generally, had already been

publicly accused of involvement in drug smuggling at Lakeland, located

in Coldwater in south-central Michigan, in a 2019 federal lawsuit

related to the overdose death of 21-year-old Lakeland prisoner Seth

Zakora. Although that suit, which initially included allegations against

the MSP, had been dismissed in 2021, the allegations against some

Lakeland prison officials had been revived just two weeks earlier, by

the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, in a development that had been

publicized in the Free Press.

Also, there were earlier drug smuggling incidents involving Waste

Management trucks both before and after the MSP investigation into

another drug overdose death at Lakeland — that of 49-year-old prisoner

Charles Foresi on Jan. 1 of this year, according to an MDOC spokesman

and records the Free Press obtained using FOIA.

Despite all of that, Gautz said Aug. 31 that prison officials do not

believe the waste hauling company is involved in the smuggling.

Given the logistical difficulties of arranging such a delivery, the

involvement of someone inside the prison who is not a prisoner cannot be

ruled out.

Yet giving Corrections Department officials significant roles in such

investigations is standard MSP practice.

MSP's Berry, who also investigated Foresi's death, wrote in a Feb. 2

report that an unauthorized cellphone discovered inside the prison

during the death investigation "was given to the MDOC intelligence unit

to be forensically examined," and said in a Jan. 12 report that prison

officials were "going through video evidence, phone calls, and JPay

(prisoner email) records."

Banner said her agency assists the Corrections Department because its

criminal investigation capabilities are limited.

"MSP is utilized to investigate and present the case to the prosecutor,"

she said. "Our ability to work cooperatively together in the

investigation increases both the effectiveness and timeliness of


While the MSP and Corrections Department work closely on investigating

potential criminal wrongdoing inside the prison system, the transparency

each provides related to transgressions by their own employees is vastly


When a state trooper is investigated by internal affairs or gets fired,

the Free Press can use FOIA to obtain reports of interviews and other

actions related to the internal affairs investigation, as well as

records documenting why the trooper was fired.

Those records are not available from the Corrections Department, making

the scope of actual or suspected drug trafficking by its employees

difficult to track.

The department cites a section of state law that declares "personnel

records" exempt from FOIA in refusing to release records of internal

affairs investigations, even in cases where the investigations uphold

accusations of wrongdoing. The department takes that position even

though internal affairs is an entirely different section of the

department from human resources and maintains its own records separate

from personnel files.

Last year, the department also used the "personnel files" exemption to

refuse to release copies of "stop orders" banning suspended or fired

corrections officers from entering state prisons, even though "stop

orders" are a form of semi-public notices, in which the names and photos

of employees are circulated to the front gate, about a dozen prison

officials, and even sometimes officials at neighboring prisons, to alert

everyone to bar entry.

Johnson, who almost didn't learn her son died from a prison overdose,

said she wonders how many other moms are similarly kept in the dark.

"None of it makes sense," she said.

Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or Follow him on

Twitter @paulegan4. 

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