Failed Bug of Prison Worker Led to Dropped Drug Smuggling Charge

Dec. 17, 2021, 5 a.m. ·

Nebraska State Penitentiary
Nebraska State Penitentiary (File Photo)

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An attempt to place a secret listening device in a kitchen closet at the Nebraska State Penitentiary cascaded into a series of events leading to the dismissal of a prison contraband case, the departure of a senior prison official, and a report that revealed serious communication issues within the Department of Correctional Services.

A report released by the Office of the Inspector General of Corrections laid out much of the case. Nebraska State Patrol investigative reports obtained by Nebraska Public Media News filled in other details.

Last year the Department of Corrections issued a press release announcing the arrest of an employee accused of smuggling drugs and other contraband into the state penitentiary in Lincoln. A few weeks later, the charges against the employee vanished.

Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon declined to comment about a case no longer under active investigation.

Bill Kelly with Nebraska Public Media News has been exploring why the case never made it to trial. He spoke with William Padmore.

William Padmore (Host, Nebraska Public Media): You've been working on this story for some time. What triggered your interest?

Bill Kelly (Senior Producer, Nebraska Public Media News): This started when I got word back in May of 2020 that the administrator in charge of intelligence operations with the Department of Corrections had been suspended. We also learned he was the subject of a Nebraska State Patrol criminal investigation. Ultimately, no criminal charges were ever filed. We know much more about what triggered that investigation.

Padmore: What does the intelligence branch do in the state's prison system?

Kelly: At each corrections facility, people are responsible for collecting and analyzing information about individual inmates, prison gangs, and sometimes employees acting inappropriately. The information from each facility gets passed up the ladder to the central headquarters for review and possible action.

Padmore: And people in that unit were eavesdropping on prisoners with bugging devices?

Kelly: It's rarely that kind of surveillance. There are several ways guards might listen in on prisoners, and that's generally not illegal. Prisoners give up many of their rights, and we're talking about safety and security issues. Where it becomes an issue is with prison employees. They still have their rights.

Padmore: The intelligence branch in prisons collects information about inmates and prison gangs and employees gone wrong. What was the problem with this case?

Kelly: There are two components to the story. First, there was a case of a prison employee, a kitchen worker, who reportedly had a relationship with an inmate. That couple allegedly were smuggling drugs into the Nebraska State Penitentiary.

Second, we learned about the listening devices occasionally used by the intelligence unit from that case. It appeared deployment of those microphones took place without much oversight.

Excerpt from 2021 OIG Report
An excerpt from the 2021 report of the Office of the Office of the Inspector General of Correctiions

Padmore: When did Corrections recognize they had a problem with an employee bringing drugs into the prison?

Kelly: Contraband is a common issue in most jails and prisons. That's not new.

Early in 2020, a number of red flags appeared, including corrections officers reporting "a strong smell of marijuana" inside the prison.

As for the drugs' source, the Lincoln penitentiary's food service worker came under suspicion in the summer of 2019.

Even after the Department of Corrections apparently had substantial evidence of smuggling contraband, administrators did not reassign the food service worker or separate her from the inmate working in the kitchen. They also chose not to single out the woman for more rigorous body cavity searches.

According to the ombudsman, the people in charge of personnel at Corrections with authority to suspend the employee had not been made aware of the employee's inappropriate contact with an inmate by the intelligence unit.

Text with some sentences highlighted in yellow and others blocked out with a black strip.
Excerpt from a 2020 Nebraska State Patrol Report on the use of listening devices at the state penitentiary.


Padmore: When did these listening devices come into play?

Kelly: According to the narrative in the State Patrol investigation we reviewed, Director of Corrections Scott Frakes approved the purchase of the devices five years ago. He told the half-dozen people the devices there would be "no written policy or standard operating procedure" for their use.

Last year someone decided the tiny microphone should be deployed to listen in on the inmate and the kitchen worker. They occasionally made use of a storage closet outside the view of security cameras.

Understand, Director Frakes had said, but not put in writing, that no one should secretly listen to prison employees.

The director of intelligence, Christopher Connolly, provided the wireless devices and a corrections officer put them in the storage closet.

According to reports we reviewed, Connolly did not get permission from the Deputy Director of Corrections. The warden at the penitentiary did not know this would be done. I spoke with Connolly, and he explained he had been under great stress on the job and had forgotten to notify his colleagues.

Padmore: Were there consequences for breaking that part of the agreement?

Kelly: Yes, there were. First, Chris Connelly lost his job. After it was learned he lied about using the devices, he reportedly was offered a disciplinary demotion but chose to retire.

As for the kitchen worker, the actions of prison administrators seem to have doomed this prison drug contraband case.

When the Lancaster County Attorney learned about recording a private conversation, it was clear the case could never get to trial.

All charges were dropped.

Padmore: Any other fallout from the case?

Kelly: It makes a number of recommendations to the Department of Corrections.

Director Frakes told the legislature's Office of the Inspector General corrections no longer intends to use such devices.

Mr. Frakes set an appointment with us later in the month to do an interview about these events, what was learned, and what may change.

NSP Report excerpt
Excerpt from a 2020 investigative report frotn the Nebraska State Patrol.