Recently, a man whom I’ll call Cyrus, who has spent the past several years in Georgia prisons, told me a story. It was about a cellmate whom I’ll call Timmy, who had borrowed Cyrus’s cell phone. Cell phones are ubiquitous in U.S. prisons, despite prohibitions against their use by inmates. Guards who smuggle them in can make a lot of money: a fifty-dollar Walmart phone may sell for twenty-five hundred dollars on the inside. Many inmates can’t afford to pay that much for phones; others, like Timmy, can’t hold onto them. “Stayed high, wasn’t careful, got caught,” Cyrus told me, referring to his old cellmate. Sometimes Cyrus rented his phones to inmates, but he was letting Timmy use this one for free.
Timmy was arranging a drug deal with a man named Rufus—another pseudonym—who was locked up elsewhere in Georgia. Rufus needed meth to sell, and Timmy said that he knew a supplier in another prison. Timmy phoned the supplier and got a price, then called back Rufus, who said the price was fine and warned Timmy that the buyer was dangerous.
Timmy handed the phone back to Cyrus, who considered what he’d learned. The handoff would take place in a parking lot north of Atlanta. The buyer would have tens of thousands of dollars in cash. The seller, stationed nearby, would send a runner to pick up the money and drop off the drugs. One of Rufus’s associates would get Rufus’s and Timmy’s cut from the seller.
That afternoon, the buyer pulled up in the parking lot with a bag of cash and a gun. The runner was late, which made everybody nervous. Timmy called the supplier and put him on speaker. Cyrus held the phone as Timmy told the supplier that the seller and the runner needed to hurry. The deal finally went down a few hours later. The buyer got back in his vehicle and drove away. Then, just down the road, he was pulled over.
Earlier that day, Cyrus had sent screenshots of all the messages to an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration, whom I’ll call J.J. Later, he called J.J. from an official prison phone, and told him everything he knew; then he discreetly texted him updates as the deal dragged on. “At one point, J.J. texted me and said, ‘My guys are literally watching everything you’re describing exactly as you’re describing it,’ ” Cyrus told me. “That was a very intense day,” he added, “but it ended with a huge bust for J.J. and the D.E.A.”
Cyrus, who is still in prison, was a D.E.A. informant for three years. In a series of conversations across several months, he told me about the experience. Some of what he told me, including the story about Timmy and Rufus, I could’t corroborate; some of what he said I won’t relay out of concern for his safety. But I was able to confirm many things that he said with government documents and other sources. The Department of Justice has issued two long letters extolling the value of Cyrus’s coöperation. The letters note the critical role that he played in the seizure of drugs including herion, MDMA, and more than a hundred pounds of methamphetamine. Cyrus also contributed to more than a hundred arrests and prosecutions of Department of Corrections employees and current inmates.
Cyrus, like most informants, began talking to law enforcement out of desperation. He had been convicted of a serious crime and had exhausted all avenues of appeal. Most informants are, or have previously been, incarcerated. The majority are likely poor and Black or brown—but it is hard to say precisely who informants are, because prosecutors and police departments are not required to document their use of them. The vast majority of criminal charges in the U.S. result in plea deals, meaning that there is no trial at which the use of an informant might be forcibly disclosed. “We only see the tip of the iceberg,” Alexandra Natapoff, a professor at Harvard Law School, told me, “when something goes wrong.”
Natapoff is the author of “Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.” In the book, she argues that there is an intentional opacity surrounding the use of informants, which helps to sustain an “almost entirely deregulated market for guilt and information.” A person who is suspected of a crime or is facing punishment can avoid arrest or get a reduced sentence in return for information, but sometimes the inducement to snitch is far more modest—in one notorious instance, in California, a man was wrongly convicted of murder on the testimony of a jailhouse informant who later said that he was given twenty-five dollars and a pack of cigarettes to offer a damning story. Informants can also be required to have sex, expose themselves to illegal drug use, or risk their lives as part of a coöperation deal. Essentially, Natapoff said, anything goes. “We have a Bill of Rights that constrains what the state can do,” she told me. “We have statutory codes that constrain what people can be convicted and punished for, and codes that say how much punishment is appropriate. And then we suspend nearly all those rules when it comes to informants.”
Perhaps the most serious problem that stems from the use of informants is the prevalence of false testimony. About a decade ago, the National Registry of Exonerations found that nearly a quarter of wrongful capital convictions were the result of testimony from jailhouse informants, who have an obvious incentive to offer up ostensibly useful information regardless of whether it is true. Cyrus’s case illustrates a different problem. Although J.J. didn’t make any specific offers of a shorter sentence, his relationship with Cyrus was predicated on assurances that Cyrus would benefit from helping the D.E.A. But J.J. had little control over what happened to him—Cyrus’s fate was in the hands of Georgia’s State Board of Pardons and Paroles, which is not beholden to anyone, and certainly not to the D.E.A. (J.J. declined to comment for this story; a spokesman for the D.E.A. told me that the agency “does not discuss tools and techniques for safety reasons.”) The way Cyrus and his family see it, Cyrus risked his life for years with an understanding that he would get leniency in return. And then, he says, he was abandoned.
By the summer of 2018, Cyrus had spent more than a decade in prisons across the state of Georgia. He kept up with the world outside using his phones, and he stayed busy buying and selling them, along with other forms of contraband. Prison incident reports filed throughout the years note that more than half a dozen phones were confiscated from Cyrus’s cell or nearby it—under his toilet, inside his eyeglasses case, in the common area outside his cell—along with a few ounces of both marijuana and tobacco. Cyrus was particularly pleased with the toilet hiding place, which withstood multiple cell checks before its discovery. “I made a mold out of soap that looked like the concrete caulking,” he explained, “which covered the hole we made.”
Throughout his time in prison, he said, his goal was to return to his child—who, by 2018, was old enough to drive—and to his partner, who had been waiting almost a third of her life for him to get out. That June, his attorney paid him a visit. “I was talking about getting out of prison to see my family after all the bullshit I’d been through with my case,” Cyrus recalled. “He says, seemingly in jest, ‘Do you know anything you can give to the government? Because, if so, that’s the quickest way out of here.’ ”
Cyrus said that snitching went against everything he stood for. “But it stayed in my mind—I couldn’t shake it,” he told me. Weeks later, he sent the attorney a long letter. “If you’re serious about what you said during our visit, then I know a lot of stuff going on here,” Cyrus wrote. He imagined providing information on the modest forms of contraband he’d bought and sold himself: hidden phones, improvised weapons, small amounts of weed. “I wrote several examples of intel I could provide,” he said. “I didn’t think anything would come of it.”
His lawyer wrote back a few weeks later. “While the details you have provided me are excellent, I will need to get more specifics from you so that the attorneys that I will be working with can independently verify the information you have shared,” he told Cyrus, adding, “All relevant parties are interested in working with us and the end result could be very favorable for you.” Within months, Cyrus was a prison informant for the D.E.A.
“I wasn’t your typical C.I.,” Cyrus told me. “I wasn’t on drugs. I was smart, quick on my feet, and could adapt to any situation and talk to anybody. . . . I was a natural. I knew exactly how to play the game.” Cyrus was especially proud of another bust that he and J.J. orchestrated involving his old cellmate Timmy and another inmate, in a different prison, whom I’ll call Daniel. Methamphetamine was being cooked and stashed at a residence outside Atlanta. Daniel knew the person in charge of the operation, and Timmy was sending his customers there. Timmy used Cyrus’s phone to sort out logistics; Cyrus listened and watched. As usual, he learned a lot: the name of the building, the names of various buyers, the timing of their purchases, the cars they drove. Most important, Cyrus said, he learned the code to get into the residence.
He shared the info with J.J, who replied, “Let’s meet for lunch.” This was code—it meant that Cyrus should call him from an official prison phone. J.J. seemed most interested in a prospective buyer with an extensive criminal record, who’d recently been released from prison. The next time this buyer went to score, the D.E.A. stationed agents near the building, and arrested him when he came out. Cyrus said that they gave the man a choice: work for them or go back to prison. He flipped. After his next buy was completed, he phoned Timmy to let him know everything had gone smoothly. Moments later, Cyrus told me, Daniel frantically called Timmy: the guys at the residence weren’t responding to him.
The unit had been raided. When J.J. walked into the unit, Cyrus told me, the first thing he saw was “one guy standing at the stove in the kitchen stirring a batch of meth.” J.J.’s boss “was blown away by what they found,” Cyrus added.
One of the D.O.J. letters, which was signed by a U.S. Attorney and sent to Georgia’s state parole board, largely corroborates Cyrus’s story, and praises the highly specific information that he provided. The building was full of young children, the letter notes—a detail that made Cyrus feel particularly good about his role. Ultimately, five men were arrested.
Shortly afterward, Cyrus found a reference to the incident online and showed it to Timmy. “I did things like this to make them think I was with them,” Cyrus said. “I showed confusion and anger along with them, but also was a voice of reason for them. This made them trust me even more.” He deleted all his text exchanges with J.J. to cover his tracks, he said: “I couldn’t keep messages and risk getting caught and having my cover blown and getting killed.” Working as an informant, he said, meant “being in the fire constantly.”
After the bust, Cyrus was moved to a different prison. J.J. said he’d be safer there, Cyrus told me, and that he’d be able to take classes that the parole board had recommended. But the new prison offered no such classes. Cyrus and his attorney are convinced that the transfer came at the D.E.A.’s behest, because there was someone at the prison that the D.E.A. was targeting. “Feds make a call,” Cyrus’s lawyer, a former prosecutor, told me, “and usually the Department of Corrections does what they ask.” The D.E.A. declined to comment. A retired F.B.I. agent, who oversaw prison-informant operations in another state, told me that this did sometimes happen with the U.S. Parole Commission.
Cyrus gave J.J. intel about a meth dealer in the prison. A couple of months later, he was moved to a new cell, which he shared with a high-ranking gang member. One night, Cyrus said, the cellmate told him that he knew he was working for the D.E.A. He said he’d found some of the D.O.J. correspondence on Cyrus’s phone; Cyrus had saved it to his phone’s clipboard and forgotten to delete it. Cyrus was able to smooth things over; he and the cellmate happened to have the same lawyer, who instructed the cellmate to keep quiet. But Cyrus begged J.J. to get him moved to a safer prison. “He had no problem getting me moved to wherever he needed me to work a target,” Cyrus said. One day, a month later, he learned that he would be transferred. The new prison was also home to many prisoners who had ties to the cartels he had given the D.E.A. information on, and to several gang members who, Cyrus believed, were under the command of the high-ranking gang member who had been his cellmate.
“I call J.J. in a panic, and he tells me he can’t stop it,” Cyrus said. “When my life was most in danger, his hands were tied.” The new prison was worse than any he’d lived in before, he said. The wall phones didn’t work, because “the junkies would pull all the wires out to make lighters to smoke their dope,” he said. “If someone got stabbed or hurt, the only way to alert staff and get medical help was for the inmates to use their cell phones to call outside for help.”
A few weeks later, Cyrus told me, in December, 2021, J.J. said that he’d had an emergency meeting with his boss and the U.S. Attorney. He’d told them that he was fed up with how the Department of Corrections had failed to protect Cyrus, and that he planned to meet with the parole board to address the issue. He said that he would offer an ultimatum: release Cyrus to D.E.A. supervision or send him to a transitional center. He told Cyrus that he was the most productive asset he’d ever worked with and that he just needed to hang on a bit longer. Cyrus had a violent disciplinary report in his prison file, dating from years before, when a shank was found in a locker at the prison where he was then incarcerated. He and his lawyer insist that the report was mistaken, that the shank belonged to another inmate in another cell. J.J. seems to have helped get the report expunged. This reduced Cyrus’s official risk level from medium to low, seemingly paving the way to possible parole.