Officials: Secret informant program may be putting Ga. inmates at risk
Within four months of its implementation at Valdosta State, one informant nearly lost his life while the prison captain who supplied him with cell phones, despite objecting to the policy, would eventually lose his job because of it
By Christian Boone
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA — The plan — utilizing inmates as informants inside Georgia’s most dangerous prisons, supplying them with cell phones to provide intelligence — was “the most dangerous thing you could do,” said a former Valdosta State Prison warden.
Within four months of its implementation at Valdosta State, one informant nearly lost his life while the prison captain who supplied him with cell phones, despite objecting to the policy, would eventually lose his job because of it.
But despite lingering concerns about the prison snitches’ well-being, the off-the-books program remains in effect, a top Georgia Department of Corrections official acknowledged in testimony at a civil trial brought by that former Valdosta captain, Sherman Maine. Last week, a Lowndes County jury found that Maine had been retaliated against by the GDC “for his engaging in activity protected by the Georgia Whistleblower Act when it terminated his employment.”
Maine said the secrecy of the program makes it impossible to know if the reward is worth the risk.
“Now every stabbing becomes suspect,” said Maine, 45. “We won’t know who’s an informant or not. They’re going to get someone killed, if they haven’t already.”
The GDC declined comment, citing the ongoing litigation. Maine is still awaiting the judge’s ruling on damages.
Though it remains unclear who developed the informant program, top prison officials were pleased with the actionable intelligence it has generated. Former wardens who testified in Maine’s trial revealed snitches had been placed in every Level 5 prison in the state — the worst of the worst.
But there’s no way of truly knowing how many informants are being used, and if any have been injured or killed. Nothing was in writing, Maine said, meaning that he’d have a hard time proving he was following procedure when he supplied an inmate with a phone. Ordinarily, doing so was considered a violation without authorization from a warden.
(Warrants must now be obtained before a cell phone is issued to an informant, providing at least a minimal paper trail.)
Retired Valdosta State warden Darrell Hart testified that he asked for written verification but was denied: “They said it’s just been approved all the way up.”
“You got very few things in writing,” said Hart, citing fears about open records requests. “Phone calls can be denied. So I understood the game.”
Order From On High
Third in command at Valdosta, Maine was widely respected for his intellect and honesty, said Hart, who made his captain the point person in dealing with gangs at one of the state’s more dangerous prisons.
According to Maine, 70 percent of the prison’s population — which includes Justin Ross Harris, convicted in 2016 of murdering his 22-month-old son — carry sentences greater than 25 years.
“I depended on (Maine) a lot to keep me informed on what the gangs were doing and what — what was going down inside the prison,” Hart said. “He knew every inmate on the compound by their nickname and knew what gang they were in.”
Into that mix came the unidentified informant, transferred to Valdosta from Rogers State Prison, a medium-security facility, in October 2010. He was assigned a job usually reserved for prisoners who’ve earned it, a situation sure to arouse suspicions, Maine warned.
Giving him cell phones ran an even greater risk. Though cell phones are readily available inside prison walls (tens of thousands are confiscated at Georgia correctional facilities each year), they’re hardly cheap, ranging from $300 to $1,000 apiece, said Maine.
The Valdosta informant, known only to the warden and Maine, smuggled his first cell phone inside his rectum. Maine made sure it wasn’t detected.
The snitch wouldn’t keep it for long, nor the replacements Maine provided. In all, seven cell phones were confiscated in the four months the informant was housed at Valdosta State.
Worst Fears Realized
“He was being looked at very hard by inmates and staff alike because he was always getting away with things,” Maine said. “When you give an inmate a cell phone to tell on things that affect a large population, it’s really dangerous.”
In January 2011, the Valdosta State informant’s cover was officially blown. He was attacked by 10 inmates, stabbed about a dozen times. When Maine visited him at South Georgia Medical Center, he got an earful.
“He said he was going to tell his family and get an attorney,” Maine said. “I knew I was going to be left holding the bag.”
Maine said he was reminded him he had a bright future, provided he kept his mouth shut.
When Maine indicated he wasn’t going to play ball, he was placed on paid administrative leave for two years. He was fired in August 2014, allegedly for violating his oath of office, after writing a letter detailing the operation to Brian Owens, then the commissioner for the Georgia Department of Corrections. Owens has denied any knowledge of the policy.
In accordance with his dismissal, Maine lost his certification as a peace officer, effectively ending his law enforcement career. He now works as a tree surgeon.
Until his trial, GDC officials continued to deny they were supplying informants with cell phones, said Maine’s attorney, Trent Coggins.
So how did the Valdosta snitch acquire the contraband? Attorneys for the state at one point claimed he had traded potato chips and honey buns for the phones, Coggins said. It wasn’t until their opening statement that they copped to the policy.
Maine said it reveals a lack of respect for human life while exposing the state to great liability.
“They de-value human life to the point that it’s ridiculous,” he said. “The state kept referring to (informants) as tools. They’re not tools, they’re people, and we have an obligation to protect them.”