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Philly prison guard arrested for smuggling phones, drugs, and other contraband to inmates

Prosecutors say Haneef Lawton, a corrections officer at the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center, helped to smuggle more than $69,000 worth of cell phones, drugs and other contraband to inmates

Exterior of The Philadelphia Industrial Correction Center.
Exterior of The Philadelphia Industrial Correction Center.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

A Philadelphia corrections officer has been indicted on charges he accepted more than $11,000 in bribes to smuggle narcotics, cell phones, and other contraband to inmates at the facility where he worked, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Friday.

Prosecutors said Haneef Lawton — a 13-year veteran of the Department of Corrections assigned to the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center on State Road — began ferrying in illicit material in September, months after coronavirus lockdowns closed the facility to outside visitors.

The indictment unsealed this week also accused an inmate — Kernard Murray, 36 — of organizing the smuggling pipeline, collecting money from others incarcerated at PICC for the payoffs, and coordinating with his girlfriend — Charene Stallings, 42 — to hand off the contraband and bribe payments to Lawton on the outside.

In all, prosecutors say, the scheme brought into the jail roughly $69,000 worth of phones and Suboxone — a drug used to treat heroin withdrawal but which can also be abused as an opioid itself — between last fall and April of this year.

“This alleged conspiracy to smuggle dangerous contraband undermined daily order at PICC, posing a threat to both staff and inmates and putting lives at risk,” said Michael J. Driscoll, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia division in announcing the charges Friday.

The exposure of Lawton’s and Murray’s alleged smuggling scheme is only the latest sign of the deteriorating environment that has plagued the city’s jails since lockdowns were imposed at the start of the pandemic.

Corrections officers and those they are there to guard have reported near-daily fights and an epidemic of absenteeism by workers, including days when more than half the staff has failed to show up. Since August, five inmates have been killed by cellmates — more than double the total number killed over the last four years.

And earlier this month, a federal judge said he was “strongly considering” imposing monetary sanctions on the Department of Corrections for failing to meet the terms of a settlement reached last year to ensure inmate safety during the extended pandemic restrictions.

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Shawn Hawes, a spokesperson for the department, said Friday that its staff worked closely with the FBI to investigate the smuggling effort.

Lawton resigned his position — and his $51,000 annual salary — on Thursday, after he was confronted with the accusations against him and informed he would face disciplinary proceedings, Hawes said.

Lawton’s attorney, Andrew Montroy, did not return requests for comment Friday, nor did lawyers representing Murray and Stallings.

All three face conspiracy, bribery, and drug-trafficking charges that could send them to prison for decades if they are convicted

Murray is also awaiting trial on state charges of attempted murder, aggravated assault, and illegal gun possession and was being held on a $500,000 bail at the time his alleged smuggling operation occurred.

Stallings faces an additional federal charge for 11 ounces of crack prosecutors say was found in her possession. Her indictment comes less than four weeks after her son — 18-year-old Rafeek Griffin — was fatally shot in an incident on the 2100 block of West Dauphin Street in North Philadelphia.

No arrests have been made in that case, a police spokesperson said.