AVON PARK — Three Florida Department of Corrections officers have been arrested and charged with smuggling cash into Avon Park Correctional Institution.
Corrections Officers Jules Loya, 33; Victor Ornedis Medina Jr., 25, and Nathan Ray Lucy, 23, were charged after an undercover sting operation by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, according to a news briefing Thursday by Polk Sheriff Grady Judd.
Judd praised the partnership with the Department of Corrections, the Inspector General and his detectives that helped catch the three in a series of undercover smuggling sting operations.
“The Department of Corrections has 24,000 employees. The vast majority of them work very hard and they’re honest and they’re ethical and they’re moral,” Judd said Thursday during a press briefing. “There is a systemic issue in place that encourages this corrupt activity.”
The problem, Judd said, stems from a lack of state funding for the corrections department, which leads to low pay and a low number of qualified job applicants.
He said Loya had only been with the department seven to eight months and Lucy was there three to four months.
Neither one of them had completed the police academy, Judd said. They were supervising prisoners with only basic training.
Medina was with the department three years, but Judd told reporters that prison environments are ripe statewide and nationwide to tempt willing guards to smuggle contraband items, such as money, cigarettes and cell phones.
Those items become currency in a barter system inside the prison.
On Sept. 13, 2018, Loya met an undercover detective in Frostproof, whom he thought was a prison inmate’s relative. The detective gave Loya two packs of 305 cigarettes, two cell phone SIM cards and $400 in cash, according to arrest reports.
Loya would keep $250 and give the inmate the rest of the money, the SIM cards and cigarettes. However, when Loya entered the main unit of the prison later that day with the contraband on him, supervision told him he was assigned to the work camp, a separate building on the compound, reports said.
As Loya entered the work camp, the metal detector went off. Loya told staff he forgot he had something on him and he had to take it out to his vehicle.
Reports said Loya left the entrance, kept the cash and threw the cigarettes and SIM cards in a nearby trash can outside the building.
Loya is charged with third-degree felony introduction of currency to an inmate and first-degree misdemeanor unauthorized compensation. Loya was also arrested in 2016 for driving on a suspended license.
Detectives, again posing as an inmate’s relative, met twice with Lucy. They met Sept. 27 in Lake Wales, where the detective gave Lucy $200 in cash: $100 for him and $100 for the inmate.
Lucy entered the work camp on Sept. 28 and gave the money to the inmate, reports said. The serial numbers matched those given to Lucy.
Then, on Oct. 4, Lucy, in uniform, met the detective in Eagle Lake, reports said. The detective gave Lucy $160 in cash: $100 for him and $60 for the inmate.
Again, after Lucy gave money to the inmate, it was confiscated and identified.
Lucy faces two counts of third-degree felony introduction of currency to an inmate, and misdemeanor charges of unauthorized compensation and of a prison employee receiving unauthorized compensation.
Detectives met with Medina on Oct. 8 at the Avon Park Walmart Supercenter, near the customer service counter. The detective gave Medina $600. He would keep $300 and give $300 to the specified inmate.
The next day, Medina handed the inmate the money, which investigators identified through serial numbers, reports said.
Medina faces a third-degree felony charge of introduction of currency to an inmate and misdemeanor unauthorized compensation.
Judd said a cell phone smuggled into a prison brings a corrections officer $1,000-$2,000, tax-free. A carton of cigarettes brings approximately $500.
Cigarettes can then get sold at $10 apiece, and inmates sell time on the cell phone.
“They even have what we call prison Netflix,” Judd said. “You can buy time to watch porn or whatever’s on the ‘Prison News Network.’ We’ll just call it ‘PNN.’”
Despite the Florida prison system’s face-to-face visitations with relatives and friends, corrections officers can smuggle things in the easiest, Judd said. Inmates recognize the officers who are or would be crooked, and groom them.
It’s tempting, he said. Guards who smuggle in a cell phone a week can get an extra $1,000 per week — an extra $50,000 per year, given two weeks off for vacation.
“Unfortunately, there’s enough crooked corrections officers to make the rest of the hard-working correction officers look bad,” Judd said.
Judd said there were others in the prison that did not get arrested. One reason why they didn’t was an alert supervisor, Judd said. She saw what looked like criminal activity, did not realize she was stumbling into an undercover investigation, “and did what a good supervisor would do and busted up the environment for the inappropriate conduct,” Judd said.
“Here’s a word for correction officers across the state: If you’re crooked, figure out a way you want an employment change, and resign, ‘cause if you hang around, on the take, we’re going to get to you and we’re going to arrest you, and we’re going to send you to state prison where you don’t get paid, legally or illegally, but you’re an inmate,” Judd said.