The FBI has opened an investigation into allegations that guards were paid large sums of money to smuggle tobacco into the Lackawanna County Prison, sources said Wednesday.
FBI agents were at the prison Tuesday night conducting interviews, one source said.
“We are cooperating,” said Lackawanna County Commissioner Mike Washo. “That’s the extent of what I can tell you.”
A former inmate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said guards were paid as much as $500 to smuggle a pound of loose tobacco into the prison. Payments were made to guards through intermediaries, possibly a guard’s girlfriend, the former inmate said. Once the tobacco was inside the prison, it was broken into smaller amounts and sold to other inmates, the former inmate said. One pound could sell out in two days, the inmate said.
It was a highly lucrative arrangement, the former inmate said. Inmates who paid $500 for a pound of tobacco that sells for about $15 in a tobacco store could “easily” make $1,000 selling it to other inmates.
“It was very profitable for them,” the inmate said.
Smuggling contraband into a county prison is not normally considered a federal crime, but it would fall under the umbrella of public corruption if guards were viewed as public officials. The ongoing public corruption probes in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties have snared dozens of public officials who have been charged with enriching themselves through their positions.
Attempts to contact union president Sgt. Bill Shanley for comment were unsuccessful. Warden Vincent Mooney was also unavailable for comment.
The tobacco investigation is the latest probe at the prison, which has been rocked by scandals over the years.
Last month, Warden Janine Donate abruptly resigned in the wake of investigations into the near-fatal beating of an inmate in August. Hearings and potential disciplinary action are pending for four prison employees – three corrections officers and a supervisor – who were on duty when the inmate was stomped. Sources have said one guard was out of the building at his car and another was on the phone when the inmate was nearly killed, according to sources close to the investigation. A federal civil rights lawsuit is being prepared against the county over the Aug. 8 assault on inmate Nicholas Pinto, according to Scranton attorney Patrick M. Rogan.
In 2007, 22-year-old federal inmate Shakira Staten gave birth to a baby girl in a prison cell, despite pleading desperately for hours that she was in labor and needed hospitalization. Only when she held her newborn baby daughter up to a cell camera, with the umbilical cord still around the baby’s neck, did prison officials believe she was giving birth. Ms. Staten sued the county, Dr. Zaloga, Correctional Care, and a nurse in federal court, but her suit was dismissed because her lawyer missed deadlines for filing paperwork.
In 2006, two guards were suspended for allowing a male inmate and female inmate to meet for sex in the prison.
In 2003, investigations uncovered episodes of guards beating inmates, of a female prison staffer having sex with a male inmate and of top prison officials using inmates to fix their cars. Some inmates also assembled their children’s Christmas presents and renovated their homes and businesses.
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