Justice Dept.: Former prison guard admits trafficking drugs

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Published: Jul. 23, 2021 at 11:07 AM EDT
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WAYCROSS, Ga. (WALB) - A former prison guard admitted to participating in a South Georgia drug trafficking operation, which included smuggling contraband to inmates, according to a release from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Jessica Azaelae Burnett, 41, aka “The Madam,” will be sentenced after she pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and distributing methamphetamine and marijuana.

“Burnett’s guilty plea exposes her to a statutory penalty of up to 20 years in prison and substantial financial penalties, followed by a minimum of three years of supervised release after completion of any prison sentence,” the department said in a release.

The release states as part of her plea agreement, Burnett agreed to forfeit five firearms that were seized during an investigation.

“Compromised corrections officers who breach prison security to provide contraband to inmates represent a significant danger not only to inmates and guards, but also to citizens outside prison walls who are within reach of unmonitored jail communications from smuggled cell phones,” said David Estes, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia. “Jessica Burnett is rightfully being held accountable for violating her oath and endangering the community.”

About the case:

The release states that Burnett was a sergeant and a senior guard with CoreCivic, the private prison company that operates Coffee County Correctional Facility. She admitted to working with other conspirators in the distribution of drugs, the release states.

“Her role in the conspiracy included smuggling cell phones, drugs and other contraband into the state prison,” the department said in the release.

Burnett is one of 48 people indicted in “Operation Sandy Bottom,” an investigation centered in the Sand Ridge neighborhood on the east side of Douglas, in an area known as “the bottoms,” the release states.

A 57-count indictment was unsealed in January 2021 and alleged that the conspiracy, controlled by a subset of the violent Gangster Disciples street gang, used guns, violence and fear to control methamphetamine trafficking operations throughout the community and to enable contraband distribution inside Georgia prisons, the release states.

The indictment charged the 48 people with a total of 129 felonies.

The investigation began in 2018 when the Coffee County Sheriff’s Office Drug Unit responded to complaints about the “increasing level of violence and drug activity in the Sand Ridge neighborhood,” the release states. Law enforcement enlisted the assistance of the FBI and the Coastal Georgia Violent Gang Task Force.

The indictment alleges that the conspiracy controlled multiple “trap houses” to store and distribute illegal drugs, primarily meth, and was coordinated by leaders of the Gangster Disciples who distributed drugs throughout Coffee, Bacon, Emanuel, Jeff Davis, Pierce and Wheeler counties, along with other parts of Georgia, according to the Justice Department.

Investigators infiltrated the operation seized multiple kilograms of drugs and nearly two dozen of illegal firearms, along with seven vehicles and more than $12,000 in cash from drug trafficking, the release states.

The Justice Department said cell phones were used by some to facilitate drug trafficking throughout south Georgia from inside the state prison system.

“Not only did Burnett jeopardize the safety of staff and inmates at the Coffee County Correctional Facility, her actions fostered criminal activity inside and outside the facility,” said Chris Hacker, special agent in charge of FBI Atlanta. “By violating her sworn oath she betrayed every honest, hard-working officer and she will be held accountable.”

“CoreCivic is committed to the safety and security of our employees, those in our care, and the communities we serve. The facility management team at Coffee Correctional Facility fully supported this investigation and appreciate the efforts of all agencies involved in preventing further introduction of contraband into correctional facilities,” said Vance Laughlin, CoreCivic’s managing director of operations.

There is no parole in the federal system.

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