Former ADOC officer faces drug charges as Alabama prison system struggles to combat contraband

This report is part of WBRC’s ongoing investigation into Alabama prisons
Former ADOC officer Justin Watts was arrested in May, 2018.
Former ADOC officer Justin Watts was arrested in May, 2018.
Updated: Oct. 11, 2018 at 3:15 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - A former officer with the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) faces multiple drug charges after he was arrested earlier this year while working at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville. Justin Glenn Watts, 26, was arrested May 10 by ADOC investigators. Watts is charged with multiple drug felonies in both St. Clair and Calhoun counties including trafficking synthetic marijuana, promoting prison contraband, marijuana possession, possession of a controlled substance and using his position for personal gain. The trafficking charge is a Class A felony and carries a minimum sentence of 10 years to life in prison.

Mercado Arnaldo, Director of ADOC’s Investigations & Intelligence Division said the investigation into Watts is ongoing and Watts is no longer employed with ADOC or the state of Alabama. An ADOC spokesperson said Watts was employed with ADOC from December, 2013 to May, 2018.

“We take a 100% zero tolerance approach to these kind of issues," Arnaldo said.

He characterized corruption within the ADOC as “very limited," and said illegal cell phones pose a much larger problem than corrupt staff bringing drugs into the prison.

Watts was released from jail on bond and the charges in both counties will be bound over to grand juries. WBRC left a message for Watts's defense attorney, but did not receive a response.

In 2017, the ADOC seized over 16,000 grams of illegal drugs from the 15 close and medium security prisons in the Alabama prison system. The largest amount was marijuana at 6385 grams, which is over 13 pounds. On the streets, 2.2. pounds or more is considered trafficking weight for marijuana and carries a class A felony charge, according to Lieutenant J. M. Davis with the Narcotics Division of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

Other top drugs that were seized from the prisons included synthetic marijuana at 4398 grams, meth at 1818 grams, Suboxone at 900 grams and Xanax at 643.

A recently retired ADOC correctional officer, who asked that we withhold his name, said the amounts reported by ADOC represented a drop in the bucket of total drugs that move through the prisons.

“Probably not even a pin drop in the bucket,” he said. “You should multiply it by ten. That’s not counting what was smoked or swallowed, or what we didn’t find.”

When it comes to prison contraband, drugs are not considered a durable good, like knives or cell phones. They aren’t stored away in large quantities, drugs are typically consumed immediately by addicts who are desperate to feed their addiction or prisoners who crave an escape from the miseries of being locked up. For drug dealers, prison provides an unprecedented customer base and if users don’t pay off debts, dealers know where to find them. More drugs means more violence.

“We are confronted with a plague of addiction that comes off the streets into our facilities,” said Arnaldo. He said the agency has put a significant dent in the amount of contraband by doubling the staff of ADOC investigators, utilizing ADOC’s CERT officers (Correctional Emergency Response Team) for prison searches and working to identify drug suppliers. Solving the problem of drugs in prison is not simple, according to Arnaldo. He said contraband cell phones allow convicted drug dealers to continue to do business, even when they’re locked up.

“We’re talking about organized gangs that exist on the streets,” Arnaldo said. “These are criminals that bring that gang mentality, the street malice and savvy and they continue those operations within the facilities.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising when an inmate is busted with contraband, but when an officer or staff member is involved in corruption, like funneling drugs into a prison, it damages the institutional sense of security, for both officers and inmates.

“It poisons everything,” said the retired ADOC officer. “It kills the moral of the other officers, and makes you wonder if the officer is a gang member. We had plenty of good officers, but when you’re working beside a corrupt guy that’s supposed to have your back, you don’t know who to trust. It’s scary.”

WBRC obtained the information on confiscated drugs through a public records request filed with ADOC. Earlier this year, we asked for data on all contraband drugs confiscated in security sweeps at ADOC’s 15 close and medium security facilities during 2015-2017. We received a list of total drugs seized in 2017, but no dates of seizure or specific facility locations. An ADOC spokesperson said prior to 2017, contraband drugs seized in state correctional facilities were reported only in individual incident reports, and because of limited resources, the ADOC was unable to review each incident report from 2015-2016 for the purposes of our public records request.

Earlier this year, WBRC uncovered multiple Facebook accounts connected to inmates that featured photos and videos of illegal drug use behind bars. At the time of our January report, prison staffing levels in monthly ADOC statistical reports indicated that Alabama’s major correctional facilities consistently operated with less than half the needed correctional officers for the five previous years.

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