State Politics

Contractor used ‘spy pen’ to film prison superintendent

The spy pen. The camera lens is just above the pocket clip at left.
The spy pen. The camera lens is just above the pocket clip at left. NC Dept. of Public Safety

In March, state computer technician Rob Jones was on a routine job assignment at Maury Correctional Institution east of Goldsboro, working on a computer in an office used by private maintenance contractors.

Jones wanted to write a note but did not have a pen, so he grabbed one from the desk and clicked it.

Instead of a protruding pen point, Jones saw a blue light. He clicked again and the light changed to amber.

Jones didn’t know what the pen was, but he apparently knew it didn’t belong inside a maximum security prison. Jones took the pen to his office, unscrewed the top and found a USB plug. When he plugged it into a computer he saw the pen was actually a video camera.

Spy cameras, like cellphones and weapons, are contraband in prison. Jones gave it to his supervisors, whose investigation showed that a maintenance worker employed by The Keith Corp. brought the spy pen into the prison.

The investigation found that Andrew Foster, the top Keith employee at Maury, used the camera several months before to secretly record a meeting with the prison superintendent, whom Foster believed had mistreated him. Foster sent the recording to his bosses in Charlotte, who watched it but did not report the contraband to prison officials.

Prison employees can be fired for bringing in contraband. Prison employees who fail to report others who do can also be dismissed.

The Keith Corp. holds private maintenance contracts at three state prisons. The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer reported in October that Gov. Pat McCrory convened an October 2014 meeting in Charlotte with Graeme Keith Sr. and Graeme “Greg” Keith Jr., friends of and major contributors to the governor.

A memo about that meeting reported that Graeme Keith Sr. told McCrory and prison officials that he wanted to expand the maintenance work to all 56 state prisons, adding that “it was now time for him to get something in return” for his political contributions. (The governor has said he did not hear that and Keith said the memo misrepresented what he said.)

On Dec. 31, 2014, the McCrory administration renewed the contracts over the objections of top prison officials. Those contracts are set to expire at the end of this year.

Gary Harkins, research director of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network, ticked off several threats that a tiny video camera would pose to prison security.

“It could be used for extortion, either of staff or another inmate, if the video is compromising,” Harkins said. “Taping the inside of an institution could help in an escape attempt, or looking for security weaknesses that could help smuggle more contraband into a prison.”

State Director of Prisons George Solomon agreed, saying the video camera could be used to record and compromise security systems in the prison: exits, entrances, camera and monitor placements, types of security doors and the verbal commands and communications used by prison employees.

“It represents a fairly large risk to us,” Solomon said. “It could facilitate an assault, escape or insurrection.”

No devices allowed

Prison regulations forbid any audio or video recording devices inside prison walls unless authorized by the head of the facility.

At Maury, there are signs in the gatehouse, where all employees, visitors and contractors enter and exit: “NO CELL PHONES OR ANY ELECTRONIC DEVICES ALLOWED INSIDE THE FACILITY.”

Guards and other officials generally don’t carry phones or devices inside the prison.

Andrew Foster had worked as The Keith Corp.’s facility manager at Maury since the contract began in 2006. According to the internal investigation, Foster said he had a rocky relationship with Dennis Daniels, the prison superintendent.

“Over the years, I as a person have been mistreated as a human and a representative of my company,” Foster said in a handwritten witness statement. “I have been bullied, humiliated and embarressed (sic) over and over again.”

Foster was scheduled to meet with Daniels on Oct. 9, 2014, to discuss work to make some cells more accessible to inmates in wheelchairs. Foster switched the pen on in his office. It recorded him leaving the office, walking through the prison and the meeting in Daniels’ office.

“On the day I used the camera pen to record the meeting in Dennis Daniels office, I felt that it was important,” Foster said in his statement. “The recorded meeting was very mild and did not contain the normal expressions that are really painful and cause fear.”

Foster told investigators: “I did not know it was illegal to record a meeting, but I did know it was unethecial.” (sic)

Video sent to HQ

Afterward, Foster told another Keith employee to take the spy pen home and email the meeting video to two Keith Corp. supervisors in Charlotte, Mike Cox and Jason Hahn. The videos were too large to email, so the employee, at Foster’s instruction, copied the video to thumb drives and sent them to Charlotte by overnight delivery.

When Hahn received the video, he watched it with another manager. Hahn told investigators that he called Foster and told him “not to do it again.”

Hahn, a maintenance electrician for the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office until he joined The Keith Corp. in 1996, did not report the contraband or the video to prison officials. He told prison investigators that he was not aware that the spy pen was contraband.

Rob Jones, the computer technician, found the pen in March, five months after Foster recorded the meeting with Daniels. Prison officials confiscated it, along with a second spy pen found in an office used by Keith employees.

Keith Corp. officials declined to discuss the incident or why they didn’t report the contraband to prison officials. A spokeswoman said that Foster no longer works for the company.

Prison officials wrote a one-page summary of the incident to file as a formal complaint to the state Division of Purchase and Contract.

The complaint said The Keith Corp. violated the rule on bringing contraband into prisons and the rule on reporting contraband to prison officials. A formal complaint requires the vendor to respond within 10 days with its version of events and a plan to correct or resolve the issue.

A memo prepared Nov. 3 in response to The News & Observer’s public records request noted that “Legal staff advised that the vendor complaint not be filed with State Purchasing and Contracts, therefore the complaint was not filed.”

Prison officials said the only action they took was to file a complaint with The Keith Corp. saying that Foster would no longer be allowed in any of its prisons.

Charlotte Observer reporter Ames Alexander contributed.

Joseph Neff: 919-829-4516, @josephcneff

About those pens

Spy pens and other clandestine recording devices are readily available on the Internet. They range in price from $20 to $150, depending on the quality of the video and the amount of data storage.

For example, Night Owl’s Executive Camera Pen claims it can record up to 100 minutes of video with audio, and can capture sound from 20 feet away. The pen is also a real pen, so budding covert operatives can take notes at the meetings being surreptitiously recorded. Videos can be uploaded by unscrewing the pen and inserting the pen into a computer’s USB port.