An article from the Las Vegas Sun, May 25, 2009:
Corruption allegations against prison guards shadow Aryan gang trial
By Jeff German (contact)
Mon, May 25, 2009 (2 a.m.)
Authorities have said all along that one of the most disturbing aspects of the Aryan Warriors case is the way the violent prison gang corrupted Nevada corrections officers.
Former members and associates of the gang who are cooperating with federal prosecutors name some of those corrections officers and spell out their alleged corruption in FBI reports and grand jury transcripts.
They accuse officers of helping the white supremacist gang smuggle drugs into prison yards. They say guards left cell doors cracked open to allow gang members to assault other inmates, passed messages of all sorts among Aryan Warriors and allowed gang members to use cell phones to contact partners in crime on the streets.
One gang member even testified that corruption within the prison system played a role in the killing of at least one inmate, a planned slaying that the witness had warned authorities about in writing.
And yet, as the racketeering trial of six Aryan Warriors and associates moves into its second week downtown, federal authorities have not charged corrections officers with any related crimes.
“They have not taken action against any of our staff, which leads me to believe they don’t have any substantiation or there’s going to be another wave” of charges, Nevada Corrections Department Director Howard Skolnik said.
The latter scenario may be more likely, FBI spokesman Dave Staretz said.
“We’re not ruling out any further prosecutions,” he said.
Sixteen corrections officers accused of misconduct were either partially or fully identified by former gang members and associates in documents obtained by the Sun. But 16 is not a comprehensive total because the documents in the newspaper’s possession are a small portion of the evidence accumulated in the lengthy federal investigation. Some allegations date back more than a decade.
Skolnik said at least eight of the 16 still work for the Nevada prison system. Officials could not determine whether four of the partial names on list the Sun provided ever worked for the prison system. Some of the identified corrections officers were disciplined by the Corrections Department as a result of information developed by prison officials, Skolnik said.
Skolnik, however, won’t say how many officers were disciplined, and he won’t identify the officers. He cited privacy concerns.
The Sun is not publishing the corrections officers’ names because they have not been charged.
The absence of charges also poses an issue for the prison system. Inmates, after all, are presumed to have less credibility than their guards.
“If we can’t substantiate an inmate’s allegation, we’re not going to take action,” Skolnik said. “We still function under the basic philosophy of you’re innocent until proven guilty.”
Federal authorities have not provided prison officials with additional information to support the accusations by the protected witnesses, Skolnik said.
“They’re in the midst of litigation, and they may be holding back until they’re done with the trial,” he said.
The conduct alleged hardly seems the type for which authorities would want to postpone action, however.
In a January 2008 report, FBI Agent Robert Hunt said former Aryan Warriors leader Guy Almony told him that drugs were “primarily smuggled” into the maximum security Ely State Prison by corrections officers.
Almony, who began cooperating with federal authorities after he survived a November 2007 attack by fellow gang members at the North Las Vegas Detention Center, identified five corrections officers at the Ely prison who he claimed assisted in the drug smuggling operation, Hunt wrote.
One of those officers had a “heroin problem” and “would smuggle in anything for half the product,” the report quoted Almony as saying.
Almony, who signed a sealed agreement with prosecutors in March 2008 calling for him to plead guilty to a racketeering charge, alleged that the corrections officer also provided another Aryan Warriors leader in Ely with his cell phone to call gang members outside the prison.
In a February 2008 FBI report, one of the officer’s friends, who also worked at the Ely prison, also said that the officer had a heroin habit, that he would snort drugs out of an eye dropper. The officer interviewed by the FBI said the Aryan Warriors had tried to recruit his addicted colleague to smuggle drugs into the prison for them, but he didn’t believe his friend had ever complied with that request.
The officer with the alleged heroin problem agreed to take an FBI-administered polygraph test in April 2008 and told agents he no longer worked for the prison system, another FBI report shows.
Almony, who is expected to testify for the government in the Aryan Warrior trial, told agents that another guard would smuggle drugs in return for $500 a package, and yet another would bring in marijuana in return for half the amount of the drug for his personal use.
Skolnik said state regulations don’t allow the prison system to conduct random testing of corrections officers, but the officers can be tested if they appear under the influence of drugs or alcohol while on duty.
Senate Bill 47, which is now in the Assembly, would give officials the authority to conduct random testing, Skolnik said.
In his interview with FBI agents, Almony identified two other corrections officers he alleged passed messages for gang members. Both officers denied that in earlier interviews with agents, according to reports of those interviews.
One of the guards denied opening doors for gang members, but he accused yet another officer at the Ely prison of doing it, the reports show.
Two other former gang members now cooperating with and protected by federal authorities also accused the latter Ely officer of smuggling drugs into the prison.
Michael Kennedy, a former Aryan Warrior leader who testified at the trial last week, told the FBI in December 2006 that the officer often slid compact disc cases filled with a white powder under the cell doors of inmates, a report shows.
Michael Alvarez, a former Hispanic gang leader who brokered a drug trafficking alliance with the Aryan Warriors inside the prison, testified before a federal grand jury in November 2006 that the guard was one of several who helped inmates distribute sheets of construction paper that had been soaked in methamphetamine, transcripts show.
The drugs were brought in through the mail to his unit, he said.
“And it would come in on a daily basis, and we’d always, you know, send things to other units … and use COs, correctional officers, to do it,” Alvarez told the grand jury.
Alvarez, who is expected to testify in the racketeering trial, said the sheets sold from $75 to $100 apiece.
When interviewed by the FBI in July 2007, the Ely officer denied cracking doors for inmates or bringing drugs into the prison. But he acknowledged getting a tattoo from a skinhead gang at the prison, which caused him to be put on administrative leave, an FBI report of the interview said. The officer indicated he was under “psychotherapeutic medication” at the time. The officer “has a reputation of ‘taking care of things’ within the institution,” the report said. “He does not take (expletive) and supervisors would often come and request his help.”
Kennedy told the FBI that while he was at the Nevada State Prison in Carson City, a guard had provided the Aryan Warriors with information that allowed gang members to “beat up child molesters and take their property.”
At the Ely State Prison, another guard left a cell door open to allow an Aryan Warrior leader to assault an inmate, Kennedy alleged in the report. He also said a fellow inmate was “sleeping with several female corrections officers” there.
While at the High Desert State Prison in Southern Nevada, Kennedy came in contact with a female prison investigator who allegedly was providing sensitive information to gang members, the FBI report said.
The investigator once used her truck to deliver flowers, manure and other garden items with drugs hidden inside to the High Desert prison, Kennedy alleged. The investigator also once revealed the identity of a prison snitch to Kennedy and instructed him to “hit him,” the report alleged. The informant, however, was moved out of the state.
Alvarez testified in 2006 that he tried to warn authorities about a plot to kill one of his fellow Hispanic gang members. He sent a letter to a local prosecutor, but asked the prosecutor not to forward it to the Corrections Department.
“And I told her I didn’t trust the DOC, the Department of Corrections, because of everything that was going on there, but she sent the letter to the Department of Corrections anyway,” he testified.
The inmate was later killed, as Kennedy had warned, prompting an internal inspector general’s investigation within the prison system, he said.
Skolnik said he did not recall any corrections officers being disciplined as a result of that investigation.
He defended his staff of 1,800 corrections officers, saying there are “very few” bad apples.
“We have a very good record of controlling violence and escapes compared to most correctional departments in the country” even though Nevada has a higher inmate-to-staff ratio, he said. “Our staff does an incredible job with the resources it has.”
But Skolnik also acknowledged that mistakes are made.
“It’s a very difficult and stressful job,” he said. “It’s easy to become complacent, and when you become complacent, you get taken advantage of.”
Jeff German is the Sun’s senior investigative reporter.