Columbia, SC (WLTX) - Inmates at South Carolina prisons used a dairy farm, a bakery, and even the State House as part of an elaborate scheme to get illegal goods inside prisons walls, South Carolina law enforcement officials said Friday.
Multiple agencies, led by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, announced indictments in relation to what they called "Operation Cash Cow," an effort to crack down on the lucrative exchanges going on inside the prisons.
"There was an extensive, sophisticated and very lucrative black market for contraband withing the prison system of South Carolina," Wilson said.
The indictments collectively contain 69 counts, consisting of 106 charges against 17 defendants.
Wilson said the effort involved prisoners on the inside who were directing other inmates, as well as friends, relatives, former inmates, wives, and girlfriends on the outside. Those people helped get tobacco, illegal drugs, and cell phones into South Carolina prisons undetected. In addition to getting supplies, the conspirators helped conceal the money that was being made.
And business was good: Wilson said a drug-cap size amount of tobacco could go for up to $25 at low-level facilities, while cell phones would be sold for hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Prices would increase depending on the level of security of the prison. Inmates would use color-coded tape to determine which goods went to which customers and which prisons.
In each case, cell phones were used to coordinate the effort. They even had a payment system for the "employees" who took part in the effort on the outside and inside.
But Wilson warned anyone on the outside that they will end up in prison themselves if they help in these types of efforts.
"If you are someone who decides to help an image smuggle contraband, you will be prosecuted for the full extend ot the law," Wilson said.
The main four schemes:
The dairy farm
Wateree Correctional Institution in Sumter County has a dairy farm attached to it that provides milk to all South Carolina prisons. The farm is not within the secure area of the prison, and inmates are supervised by civilians.
The indictment says inmates would coordinate for duffle bags full of contraband to be left on the farm in specific places overnight. When the inmates would go out on the farm during the day, they'd bring items in the bags back to the dairy facility. From there, it would be broken up and put into small capsules called 'eggs' which were then loaded up into milk crates, and finally onto trucks that would take the items to other prisons throughout the state.
"The food distribution network was used against itself to facilitate the contraband trade," Wilson said.
The inmates also used a bakery in Columbia to funnel goods. The bakery makes bread for prisons in the state. Similar to the dairy farm, inmates would pick up items that were left near the bakery, and carry it back on the delivery trucks to the prison.
State House grounds
People on the outside would hide contraband at the South Carolina State House. Inmates who would work prison detail at the capitol complex would then pick them up and carry the items back into prison.
The final way was one that's very familiar to corrections officials: items would be thrown over prison walls.
This is the second major criminal scheme involving South Carolina prisons to be announced this week. On Wednesday, corrections official announced charges against inmates who extorted money from U.S. service members by using online dating apps.