Pre-paid cards, phones and codes are inmates' currency

Black Guerrilla Family allegations describe complex payment system

May 11, 2013|By Justin Fenton, Ian Duncan and Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun

In the black market of Maryland's prisons and jails, where the right price can secure cellphones and drugs, transactions unfold through a complex system of currency. Among the key elements: 14-digit codes, prepaid debit cards and text messages.

One brand of cards — Green Dot — is so ubiquitous that it has become part of the lexicon on the inside. The recent federal indictment of two dozen inmates and corrections officers in an alleged Black Guerrilla Family corruption scandal at the Baltimore City Detention Center notes several instances in which suspects refer to "dots" in transactions.

Corrections officials have fought for years against illicit commerce — cigarettes, cash and even bars of soap have been used in trade among prisoners. But recent allegations suggest that such prepaid cards have emerged in concert with cellphones as an efficient way to move capital around, into and out of corrections facilities.

Though other cards provide similar services, Green Dot pops up repeatedly in the recent BGF indictment, in several other recent Maryland cases — including last week's federal charges in an alleged Howard County drug ring — and in news reports from around the country. In some instances, the payment system has also been used by inmates demanding money in exchange for protection.

U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said Green Dot cards have become the primary source of payment among gang members and other inmates in the city jail. Using a simple code number to make transactions makes the cards hard for authorities to detect, he said.

"Once a person has a Green Dot account number, people can add money to the account in many ways without anyone being able to trace it," he said.

Green Dot Corp. is just one of many providers of this type of card, and there is no allegation that the company has done anything illegal.

The California-based company declined to comment for this article. Its website says millions of customers use its products to access banking services such as ATMs and online bill payment. The company collects identifying information about account holders, which according to court documents helped the FBI locate a suspect's home in the BGF case.

Such cards, like phones and many other outside conveniences, are banned among inmates. No cash is allowed at the Baltimore jail.

According to court documents from the recent federal indictment, inmates would receive text messages on contraband phones containing 14-digit codes linked to Green Dot "MoneyPak" cards sold in stores.

The codes can be traded within the facility or used to transfer funds to linked Green Dot debit cards held outside jail or prison. Green Dot cards are not backed by a checking account or line of credit.

A recorded conversation detailed in an affidavit from the case illustrates how authorities believe gang members used Green Dot cards.

Inmate Steven Loney allegedly told corrections officer Taryn Kirkland in a Jan. 21 phone conversation that he needed help with some bookkeeping. "Go get your notebook and write some of these dots."

She retrieved a ledger of Loney's drug customers and transactions from under her bed, according to court documents. It included several names and the corresponding MoneyPak code numbers.

The indictment included 13 corrections officers at the jail, along with a dozen alleged gang members. Federal authorities describe a world of corruption including sex and drugs — facilitated in part by money exchanged through the Green Dot cards.

Tavon White, named in the recent indictment as the BGF leader at the detention center, boasted that he was able to make $16,000 profit in a single month, which prosecutors say was laundered through Green Dot cards and the purchase of vehicles. "That ain't bad for a whole month," he said in a wiretapped phone conversation.

But Green Dot cards have been noted in several Maryland investigations dating back to at least 2008, described as being used for extortion schemes and to sell copies of the Black Guerrilla Family handbook. A Drug Enforcement Administration agent described such cards in 2010 court documents as "simple and advantageous for incarcerated individuals."

In the most recent example, federal authorities allege that an inmate at the Chesapeake Detention Facility in Baltimore used Green Dot cards to pay for cellphone calls coordinating a drug ring that the Bloods gang ran in Howard County. Nearly 20 gang members have been indicted with related crimes, officials said last week.

Green Dot cards cannot be used for any legitimate purpose within the corrections system, according to Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

"The best way to reduce or eliminate Green Dot usage is to combat illegal cellphones, which the department has been aggressively doing for nearly six years," he said. Vernarelli added that investigators pursue cases when Green Dot codes are discovered on contraband cellphones.

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