TURTLECREEK TWP., WARREN COUNTY — Since September 2013, 641 contractors have been disciplined for smuggling into Ohio prisons, according to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.
“It’s a tremendous problem as far as the safety of our prisons as a whole,”’ said Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell. “It’s an ongoing issue that the prisons deal with every single day.”
County prosecutors and state troopers where Ohio’s 31 prisons are located investigate and press criminal charges in cases involving inmates, contractors and state employees.
Since 2014, 64 state prison employees have been disciplined for smuggling, according to ODRC data.
Fornshell’s latest case involves a 28-year-old dental x-ray technician scheduled for arraignment later this month for illegal conveyance onto prison grounds, drug trafficking, aggravated trafficking in and possession of drugs and illegal conveyance of a communications device onto the grounds of a “specified government facility.”
Praise T. Roberson of Cincinnati was charged after officers from the Ohio Highway Patrol and prison investigators with a drug-sniffing dog “hit” on Roberson’s car in the parking lot about 10:15 a.m., June 26 at Lebanon Correctional Institution, one of two prisons in Warren County.
Roberson - still a licensed radiographer by the Ohio Dental Board, according to on-line records - was arraigned in Lebanon Municipal Court the next day and released on her own recognizance. She is scheduled for arraignment on Aug. 30 in Warren County Common Pleas Court.
Roberson and her court-appointed lawyer could not be reached for comment..
JoEllen Smith, spokesperson for ODRC, said “DRC has zero tolerance for contraband within our facilities.”
The drugs Roberson was allegedy trying to smuggle into the prison were valued at about $22,000 at current prison market rates, according to Fornshell.
The value fluctuates based on supply and demand.
“If the prison goes dry, so to speak, then the price goes up,” Fornshell said.
Inside Roberson’s car, investigators found seven cellphones, a package of marijuana in electrical tape, two packages wrapped in electrical tape containing vacuum-sealed packages concealed by more electrical tape with methamphetamine pressed into pills, suboxone strips, marijuana and powder meth, Fornshell said.
According to ODRC, Roberson was employed from May 7 to June 26 by PrevMED/Mid-America Health, an Indiana-based company.
“Since 1986, Mid America Health, Inc. has been providing dental services to federal, state and local correctional facilities, introducing innovative management and operational dental concepts,” according to the company web site.
There was no response from the company to a request to comment.
Further investigation determined from calls on Roberson’s cellphone that she was working with an inmate, who has not been charged and Fornshell declined to identify.
“There were cellphone discussions with the inmate that indicated that these items were going to be transmitted into the prison,” Fornshell said after Roberson’s indictment earlier this month.
Some inmates are in prison for crimes related to their drug problems. The presence of drugs in prison leads to overdoses. Prison gangs, some with connections outside the walls, battle. Inmates who fail to pay for their drugs are subject of “hits,” contracts for murder, according to Fornshell.
Prison smuggling worsens conditions in an already dangerous environment.
“It’s a tremendous problem inside the prisons,” the prosecutor said. “Not only are they putting themselves at risk, they are putting other inmates and perhaps more important putting the guards and other employees at the prison at risk.”
ODRC has barred 461 food contractors from working in state prisons and 180 medical contractors have been found in violation of state regulations, according to Smith.
Contractors, trained not to join in smuggling schemes, are offered as much as $500 to smuggle, according to Fornshell.
“You’re talking about a week’s worth of wages,” he said.
The prosecutions can be difficult.
Last June, a Warren County jury acquitted a former kitchen worker at Lebanon Correctional Institution of sexual battery charges stemming from sex with an inmate she was supposed to be supervising.
The contractor, Erica Douglas, testified that inmate James Rose threatened her and her family after she had sex with him.
“Once they get their claws in,” Fornshell said. “Now they’ve got something over their head.”
Last year, a Fairfield County milkman was caught smuggling marijuana, tobacco and cellphones into the Lebanon Correctional hidden inside milk cartons.
Ray Adams, now 51, was sentenced to three years on probation, 120 days of house arrest, ordered to reimburse $280 to the state patrol, forfeit $1,000 and pay court costs.
State troopers are specially assigned to work alongside prison employees. Prosecutors seek tough sentences to discourage others from getting involved in prison smuggling.
“I don’t know that there is a solution in that the problem will ultimately be solved,” Fornshell said. “The demand is always going to be there.”
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