How an inmate hacker hid computers in the ceiling and turned his prison upside down

In the summer of 2015, Stan Transkiy was 16 years into a life sentence, and he had finally found a way to occupy his time. Inside the Marion Correctional Institution, which sits on green farmland off a series of quiet roads in rural Ohio, he had carved out a job running a recycling program, a gig that earned him nicknames like “The Garbage Man.” It was an apt description: Transkiy, bald and bearded, sometimes worked 14 hours straight and sorted, by his estimate, tens of thousands of pounds of trash over the years. He did the job well, according to an inmate job evaluation, even if he sometimes took work problems too personally.

Marion was an improvement over Transkiy’s previous facility, Lebanon Correctional Institution. State inspectors had lauded Marion for “innovative thinking” that “infuses the environment.” In addition to the recycling initiative, the prison ran programs in education, aquatics, news, and gardening. It even hosted a TEDx event — part of a series of talks that, in 2013, drew Orange Is the New Black author Piper Kerman to speak alongside inmates and staff and eventually offer writing lessons in the facility.

One day in August, Transkiy heard a voice boom over the prison intercom asking for Randy Canterbury, an employee at an outside nonprofit called RET3 who oversaw the prison’s recycling initiative. One by one, Transkiy watched as men he worked closely with were called into mysterious interviews with prison and state authorities. Someone was looking into wrongdoing tied to the recycling program.

 

Soon, Transkiy himself was called into an office, where state investigators grilled him. Did he know Canterbury’s computer password? Did he understand how firewalls work? Would he take a polygraph? Staff threw him into a segregated section of the prison called O Block, and when he was called back to the office nine days later, a state trooper questioned him as a phone rang in the background. “Obviously, Stan, the whole computer situation, you’re aware of that,” the trooper said, according to a transcript of the conversation. “You’re aware they were found.”

Transkiy was being questioned about an extraordinary form of contraband. Someone had hidden refurbished computers in the ceiling of the prison. They’d somehow obtained a login to the prison’s network, gaining access to the inner workings of the facility, including databases on inmates and the tools for creating passes needed to enter restricted areas. The computers also granted access to the outside world, which someone had used to apply for credit cards using the stolen identity of a prisoner. The scheme extended from the prison, to a community nonprofit, to multiple banks — all done under the noses of an oblivious prison staff. When investigators laid out the contours of the plot, Transkiy said he couldn’t believe it. “This is… this is… this is bullshit basically,” he stammered out. “This is something, you know, that’s… that’s… that’s not real.”

When the results of the state’s investigation became public in April of this year, the state inspector general compared the incident to Hogan’s Heroes, with prison staff acting in the role of the incompetent, outmaneuvered overseers. While there’s an element of truth to the characterization, interviews with inmates, investigators, and staff, as well as written correspondence and thousands of pages of previously unpublished public records, also reveal a complex crime requiring considerable technical savvy. Together, they show how a progressive facility had difficulty implementing and securing technology that provided novel opportunities for learning, as well as mischief. “Our inmates are way smarter than our technical people, you know,” one investigator later said during an interrogation. “So we’ve got a huge problem there.”

Transkiy worked on the recycling program alongside two talented colleagues, Scott Spriggs and Adam Johnston, who’d spent time together inside Lebanon. Spriggs and Johnston were close friends. Spriggs explained that both were incarcerated at 18, in the early 2000s, and their crimes and sentences were similar: murder and related charges that meant a minimum of decades behind bars, perhaps their entire lives. Both showed a magnetic attraction to computers and shared a reserved demeanor, Spriggs told me. “Zen” was the word Transkiy used to describe Johnston. “Very few things bother him,” he said.

Johnston, a fit, light-haired man convicted of a brutal drug-linked murder, was an avid reader, and his personal tastes skewed toward genre. In an online pen pal profile, he wrote that he loved reading sci-fi and fantasy, especially Game of Thrones. He’d played the guitar for about 20 years, and developed an interest in astronomy and philosophy. He also stayed in contact with his mother, Karen Gallienne.

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