Baltimore, Maryland – Chief U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar sentenced former correctional officer Jessica Vennie, age 28, of Crowley, Texas, today to six years in federal prison, followed by three years of supervised release, after she was convicted at trial for racketeering at the Eastern Correctional Institution (ECI) in Westover, Maryland, as well as her role in drug and money laundering conspiracies. The scheme involved paying bribes to correctional officers to smuggle contraband, including narcotics, tobacco, and cell phones, into the prison.
The sentence was announced by United States Attorney for the District of Maryland Robert K. Hur; Special Agent in Charge Gordon B. Johnson of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Baltimore Field Office; and Secretary Stephen T. Moyer of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (DPSCS).
“Corrupt correctional officers rip off the taxpayers, endanger their colleagues and inmates, and undermine citizens’ faith in the justice system,” said U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur. “The sentence imposed today confirms that, working with our state and federal partners, we will root out corruption and bring those responsible to justice.”
According to the information presented at the nine-day trial, Vennie was a correctional officer at ECI, the largest state prison in Maryland, operating since 1987, in Somerset County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. ECI is a medium-security prison for men built as two identical compounds (East and West) on 620 acres, and housing more than 3,300 inmates. Vennie was assigned to the East Compound.
The evidence at trial showed that from about 2015, until October 5, 2016, Vennie and other correctional officers (COs) smuggled contraband into ECI, including narcotics, cell phones, pornographic DVDs, and tobacco. Vennie used her sister and others to help her execute the scheme, including packaging contraband for smuggling in feminine hygiene products, and maintaining a Pay Pal account to receive bribe payments. Vennie used a cellular phone to communicate with inmates about what they wanted to have smuggled in and to arrange meetings with the inmates’ facilitators to receive contraband and payment for smuggling it into ECI. Law enforcement intercepted text messages between Vennie and inmates and facilitators where Vennie stated what contraband she would smuggle in, how the contraband should be packaged, the amount of the bribe she demanded in return, and when she would meet with facilitators. The “going rate” for a CO to smuggle contraband into ECI was $500 per package, although some COs charged more and others less. Inmates were able to use contraband cell phones to pay COs directly using PayPal from within ECI.
The evidence showed that Vennie smuggled narcotics into ECI, including Suboxone and synthetic cannabinoids (otherwise known as “K2”), which was distributed by inmates. Once Vennie and the other COs had the smuggled contraband inside the facility, they delivered it to: inmates in their cells; clerks’ offices, which were private offices within each housing unit where an inmate clerk worked; the officers’ dining room where officers could interact with inmate servers and kitchen workers; and pre-arranged “stash” locations like staff bathrooms, storage closets, laundry rooms, and other places where contraband could be hidden and then later retrieved by inmates. An inmate testified at trial that Vennie would leave packages of contraband for him in the bathroom of the Officer’s Dining Room, or ODR.
According to trial testimony, another inmate told Vennie that a package she brought in “wasn’t right,” meaning that it did not contain the quantity or quality of contraband that they had agreed upon. The witnesses testified that Vennie told the inmate that he had to “deal with it on his end.” Ultimately, the inmate who had picked up the package from the ODR bathroom was violently assaulted, at the direction of the inmate for whom Vennie had smuggled in the contraband.
As a result of this prosecution, 77 of the 80 defendants were convicted, including 16 of the 18 correctional officers charged. All the defendants who have been sentenced to date have been ordered to serve a term of imprisonment, ranging from a year and a day in prison to 72 months in prison.
The United States Attorney expressed appreciation to Secretary Moyer, whose staff initiated the ECI investigation and who has made the full resources of the DPSCS available to assist in the three-year investigation.
United States Attorney Hur commended the FBI, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, the Baltimore Police Department, and the Maryland State Police for their work in the investigation. Mr. Hur thanked Assistant U.S. Attorneys Leo J. Wise, Robert R. Harding, and Daniel C. Gardner, who prosecuted this Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force case.
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