AVON PARK, Fla. -- Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd announced the arrests of three correction officers, Thursday. All of them, employed at the Avon Park prison.
All three guards are accused of sneaking contraband to prisoners in exchange for cash.
“There’s three crooks,” said Judd, “And they confessed.”
Judd says the three corrections officers arrested -- 33-year-old Jules Loya, 23-year-old Nathan Lucy, and 25-year-old Victor Medina -- all took cash from undercover agents to deliver contraband to prisoners at Avon Park correctional institution.
Officials say their undercover investigation started after a Lieutenant working inside Avon Park correctional institution noticed some suspicious behavior.
That was reported to the Inspector General‘s Office, which then contacted the sheriff’s office.
“This is not a single or prison issue,” said Judd, “This is a systemic state-wide issue.”
Deputies released video of Medina allegedly taking money from an undercover agent at a local Walmart store.
It was an example, said Judd, of widespread corruption. He blames, in part, a system that offers low salaries, inadequate training and pre-screenings.
“It’s ripe for corruption when you don’t pay. It’s ripe for corruption when you don’t have the opportunity to give polygraphs.
With 24,000 corrections workers in Florida, Judd was careful not to blame everyone. The vast majority, he said are honest hard-working people.
But state corrections officers, said Judd, get paid just $33,000 a year. They can make another $1,000 a week for sneaking in a cell phone and $500 for a carton of cigarettes.
“So, you can see there’s huge amounts of money,” he said.
Nicotine and SIM cards might not sound like a big deal, but Judd said that could eventually turn into drugs and weapons by threatening the officers, telling them, “If you don’t cooperate with us, we’re going to go to the warden and we’re going to testify under oath what a crook you are.”
In the small town of Avon Park, it’s hard to find people who don’t someone who works inside the prison.
News of the arrests was disappointing.
“There ain’t no excuse for that. None,” said John Thompson, who has a relative working at the prison.
“Even if they get fired, or they get prosecutor, there’s always somebody there behind them that’s gonna keep on doing it,” said Roger Hess who lives near the prison.
The arrests come after an investigation that started in September. According to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, Loya, 33, met an undercover detective in Frostproof who was pretending to be a family member of an inmate. The detective gave Loya two packs of cigarettes, two cell phone SIM cards and $400 cash. Investigators say the deal was that Loya would give it all to the inmate, but keep $250 for himself.
When Loya went to the prison later that day, investigators say he was told he was assigned to work in the camp that day. When Loya went in, he had to pass through a metal detector, which went off. He reportedly told staff members he forgot something and had to go back out to his vehicle. When he did, detectives say he threw the items in a trashcan, but kept the cash.
Loya is charged with one count of introduction of currency to an inmate and one count of unauthorized compensation.
Then on Sept. 27, an undercover deputy posing as an inmate’s relative contacted corrections officer Lucy, 23, about bringing cash into the prison. The detective gave Lucy $200 in cash with an understanding that he’d get to keep $100 if he gave the other half to the inmate. Investigators tracked the money by serial number to the inmate.
On October 4, the detective contacted Lucy again to take more money to the inmate, which investigators say he did.
Lucy is charged with two counts of introduction of currency to an inmate, one count of unauthorized compensation and one count of a prison employee receiving unauthorized compensation.
Then on October 8, an undercover detective met with corrections officer Medina in Avon Park. The deal – Medina was given $600, $300 of which he was to give to the inmate.
Detectives say Medina went through with it and now he’s charged with one count of unauthorized compensation.
Medina has posted $1,500 bond. Loya is still in custody and being held on $2,500 bond and Lucy is in custody with a $3,000 bond.
“At the end of the day, you have three crooks and they confessed,” Judd said. “They’re bad men."
More arrests, Judd added, are likely.
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