100 people charged in ‘Prison Empire’ drug investigation, with some already locked up

Noah Feit
·3 min read

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson was surrounded by officers from multiple law enforcement agencies Monday when he announced the largest drug conspiracy ever indicted in a state court.

The indictments are part of a drug trafficking case called “Prison Empire,” Wilson said.

Speaking from the State Grand Jury Room in Columbia, Wilson said there were 487 charges filed within 297 counts against 100 defendants as part of the “Prison Empire” investigation.

About 20 kilograms of methamphetamine, 5 kilos of heroin, and 1.5 kilograms of cocaine, as well as 82 firearms have been seized during the investigation, according to a news release from the Attorney General’s office.

The drugs were trafficked throughout South Carolina, but primarily in the Upstate, according to the release.

Other crimes included in the indictments were burglary, kidnapping, and the investigation uncovered gang involvement as well as Mexican sources of supply for the drugs, the Attorney General’s office said.

“This case shows the importance of our state grand jury and its ability to investigate statewide cases that cross jurisdictional lines,” Wilson said. “It also highlights what we’ve been talking about for years now — the danger of contraband cell phones and how prison inmates use them to commit more crimes even while they’re behind bars.”

Both Wilson and South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said much of the drug trafficking uncovered in the investigation was run by current and former inmates though the use of contraband cell phones in South Carolina prisons.

There are charges from an incident that was ordered from prison because of nonpayment of a drug debt, the Attorney General’s office said.

At least two defendants who are currently Department of Corrections inmates were found in possession of cell phones and meth when they were rounded up this week for bond hearings in this case, according to the release.

The investigation also uncovered drug smuggling into prison by a member of a law firm, Wilson said. A paralegal at a law firm allegedly used hollowed out documents in legal mail to smuggle meth into the prison system, according to the release.

“This is one more tragic example of the damage illegal cell phones do in the hands of inmates,” Stirling said. “The public would be safer if we were able to block cell phone signals.”

Bond hearings for 46 of the defendants happened last Wednesday and Thursday, according to the release. Previous bond hearings in the case had taken place in November 2019, the Attorney General’s office said.

In addition to the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Corrections, “Prison Empire” was investigated by the South Carolina State Grand Jury, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, the Pickens County Sheriff’s Office, the Greenville County Multi-Jurisdictional Drug Enforcement Unit, the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office, the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office, the Edgefield County Sheriff’s Office, the Lexington County Sheriff’s Office, the Laurens County Sheriff’s Office, the Easley Police Department, the Liberty Police Department, the Pickens Police Department, and the South Carolina Governor’s Counterdrug Task Force (a unit of the South Carolina National Guard).

The cases will be prosecuted by Senior Assistant Attorney General Joshua R. Underwood, Assistant Attorney General David A. Fernandez, Assistant Attorney General John Conrad, Assistant Attorney General Johnny E. James, Jr., and State Grand Jury Division Chief Attorney S. Creighton Waters.