Drugs, shanks and phones: Contraband grows in South Fla. federal prison

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has said the amount of contraband found consistently inside the facility is 'dangerous'


Mario Ariza
Sun Sentinel

MIAMI — Some inmates at South Florida’s largest federal prison enjoy the comforts of the outside world, complete with cellphones and amphetamine pills.

Their smuggled contraband is a growing safety concern at Federal Correctional Institution Miami, home to 1,200 inmates. The problem has risen to the forefront in recent months with the arrest of an officer charged with taking bribes in exchange for smuggling contraband, as well as the Jan. 24 discovery of more than 50 prohibited cellphones in a single day.

This file photo from March 2016 shows the kind of contraband commonly found in FCI Miami, a federal prison officials say has a dangerous contraband smuggling problem. (Photo/TNS)
This file photo from March 2016 shows the kind of contraband commonly found in FCI Miami, a federal prison officials say has a dangerous contraband smuggling problem. (Photo/TNS)

A series of Federal Bureau of Prisons documents obtained by the South Florida Sun Sentinel detail the unusually high level of smuggled material.

In less than 30 days last fall, corrections officers inside the prison found 54 cellphones, 47 amphetamine pills, 25 grams of an amphetamine infused leafy substance, two syringes filled with liquid amphetamine, one opiate-infused paper strip, at least nine cellphone chargers and one 11.5-inch, dagger-like shank fashioned from a piece of copper pipe.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons considers the contraband — especially the cellphones — to be dangerous.

The last federal corrections officer to be killed in the line duty was murdered in 2013, in part because he disrupted the operations of a contraband ring inside a federal facility in Puerto Rico, according to the Justice Department. Members of the ring used a smuggled phone to order a hit on the guard.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration cited FCI Miami for workplace violence on June 6, 2018, partly because the pervasive contraband was directly contributing to deteriorating safety conditions. But even after the citation, and the arrest of the corrections officer and two of his inmate co-conspirators alleged to have been part of a smuggling ring, the contraband has kept getting in.

“I’m afraid for the safety and security of the staff over there, and with those cellphones, there’s no guarantee,” said Kareen Troitino, president of local 3690, the union that represents federal correctional officers at the institution.

FCI Miami sits on a patch of scrubby Pine Rockland shared with Zoo Miami and a small U.S. Army base. The facility has held the famous and the infamous. Ponzi schemer Peter Madoff, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega and Jamaican reggae legend Buju Banton have called it home.

The prison is divided into a low-security correctional institution, which houses some 870 inmates, and a minimum-security camp, which houses some 340, according to the Federal Bureau of Prison’s website.

The website explains that low security institutions have a double fenced perimeter and house prisoners in dormitories or cubicles. Minimum security features dorm housing, little to no fencing and few guards. Inmate movement at both security levels is usually not heavily restricted.

But that hasn’t been the case since a 2016 prison brawl between 90 inmates in the low-security portion of FCI Miami that landed a prisoner in the hospital with a nail embedded in his skull, according to numerous corrections officers currently or formerly employed at the facility.

Since the brawl, the officers say, movement inside the low-security wire has been restricted, like that of a medium security institution.

On Jan. 24 this year, unrest broke out in the camp. According to corrections officers who work at the facility, the discovery of more than 50 prohibited cellphones in a single day triggered a lockdown, which in turn led to an inmate strike.

The labor strike, according to corrections officers, included a mass refusal by inmates to eat in the facilities’ food hall.

A Jan. 25 police report of a possible escaped inmate, documented in Federal Bureau of Prison’s documents, only increased tensions. A headcount showed there was no escape, but corrections officers suspect it was someone actually breaking into the compound to deliver contraband.

Last October, Victor Manuel DeJesus, 47, a Federal Bureau of Prisons corrections officer stationed at the facility, was indicted on charges of taking bribes in exchange for smuggling contraband, including cellphones.

Two inmates at FCI Miami, Gregory Bart Nation and Jose Enrique Mejias, were charged alongside DeJesus.

A news release from the U.S. Department of Justice explains the case against DeJesus: “Inmates and those acting on their behalf supplied DeJesus with bribe payments." In return, “DeJesus used his official position to bring in prohibited items into the prison.”

According to court documents, DeJesus was sneaking in cellphones, SIM cards, cigarettes and drugs. Nation and Mejias would coordinate orders and payment, eventually depositing $52,000 in DeJesus’ bank accounts. Court documents show that DeJesus used the money to buy a 2018 Chevrolet Silverado pickup.

Court documents also show that several of the cellphones that DeJesus smuggled in were later confiscated within the facility.

DeJesus was initially released on a $100,000 bond after his arrest, but authorities put him back in jail after they suspected him of possessing and selling drugs, obstructing justice and committing witness tampering while out on bond, according to federal court affidavits.

He pleaded guilty Jan. 17 to one count of defrauding the United States and committing bribery in order to smuggle contraband, and is set to be sentenced April 2. He faces up to five years in prison.

Attorney’s for Dejesus, Nation, and Mejia could not be reached for comment.

The detention of DeJesus didn’t stop the contraband from coming in.

“Stuff gets thrown over [the fence],” said the Rev. Latta Thomas, a former chaplain at the South Miami facility who worked there from 2014 to 2016, “and [inmates] just go over and pick it up.”

“This is an issue of safety in regards to the community,” Latta said, noting the facility’s proximity to neighborhoods.

While some amount of contraband is to be expected in any prison, the numbers featured in the documents are statistically high for a facility like FCI Miami, which the Federal Bureau of Prisons classifies as a “low-security” facility, meaning it is generally not populated with violent or repeat offenders.

But according to a records request published on the Federal Bureau of Prisons website, FCI Miami has consistently had the second-highest number of cellphones confiscated in any of the country’s 22 low-security institutions.

In a statement to the Sun Sentinel, representatives from the Federal Bureau of Prisons noted that they use technology like thermal fences, walk-thru metal detectors, handheld scanners and whole image body scanners, as well as “sound correctional techniques (such as visual searches)" to address the security threat of inmates with cellphones.

Because of employee complaints, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration sent a letter to FCI Miami on June 6, 2018, stating that pervasive contraband at the facility was directly contributing to deteriorating safety conditions.

The letter was the result of an investigation that found employees “are exposed to the hazard of physical assault and serious injury,” in part while searching cells for contraband. The letter cited two instances in which officers were assaulted by inmates.

Representatives from the Federal Bureau of Prisons noted that they are contesting the allegations contained in the letter and that “the citation is currently being reviewed by the OSHA National Office on appeal.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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