FBI investigating CO corruption at San Quentin

One arrest has been made so far involving cell phone smuggling to a death row inmate

By Nate Gartrell
The Mercury News
SAN QUENTIN, Calif. — The FBI is investigating alleged corruption by corrections officers at California’s oldest prison, in an “ongoing” probe that has so far resulted in charges against one CO, the agency confirmed Thursday.

In an email to the Bay Area News Group, an FBI spokesperson confirmed the existence of the federal investigation at San Quentin State Prison, where an officer was recently charged for allegedly smuggling cellphones to a death row inmate. The complaint against the CO, Keith Christopher, alleges he accepted bribes from the inmate’s girlfriend, and smuggled several phones in at a time, using an intermediary to facilitate his “smuggling fee.”

“The FBI is investigating the illegal smuggling of contraband into San Quentin prison’s Death Row, and the role that one or more corrupt Corrections Officers play in that smuggling,” FBI Special Agent Candace Bond wrote in that complaint.

CDCR says it has a
CDCR says it has a "zero tolerance" policy on smuggling by staff and that the prison is assisting with the investigation. (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The FBI declined to comment further on the investigation because it is ongoing.

Asked for comment on his arrest, a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman said the agency has a “zero tolerance” policy on smuggling by staff and that the prison’s Investigative Services Unit assisted the FBI investigation.

Illegal controlled substances and contraband cellphones in prisons pose several safety and security risks and counteract CDCR’s rehabilitative objectives,” spokeswoman Terry Thornton said. “CDCR has created a multilayered approach to reducing contraband activity in its institutions including heightened physical security, expanded and improved use of modern audio/visual surveillance systems, disrupting gang activity, and closing contraband avenues of entry.”

Christopher, who has worked at San Quentin for nearly six years, was released from Santa Rita Jail in Dublin after his first court appearance and remains out of custody while the charges are pending. He is currently on administrative leave.

Confirmation of the San Quentin investigation marks the second time this year that a federal probe into alleged corruption at a California state prison has become public. In April, The Sacramento Bee reported the FBI has been looking into California State Prison, Sacramento, since the death of an incarcerated person there in 2016.

Thus far, two officers at the Sacramento prison have been charged with federal offenses, including civil rights violations, related to a September 2016 incident where a handcuffed 65-year-old inmate died after one of them allegedly tackled him during an escort.

California prison officials describe illicit phones as one of the biggest security threats facing the state’s beleaguered prison system, with an estimated tens of thousands in circulation. From 2007 to 2011, the number of cellphones in California prisons increased tenfold, from 1,400 to 15,000, according to a published report by Government Technology.

In recent years, federal prosecutors in California have filed charges after large-scale investigations revealed prison gang leaders were using phones to run drug rackets, order murders, and facilitate more contraband smuggling, according to court filings. This includes allegations that one man incarcerated at Salinas Valley State Prison was running a multi-state methamphetamine and heroin ring on behalf of a white supremacist prison gang and felt so comfortable with his contraband cellphone that an officer saw him walking around with one in his hand outside of his cell.

©#YR@ MediaNews Group, Inc.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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