Prison Officer Sentenced to Three Years for Inappropriate Relationship and Smuggling Cannabis into Jail

A prison officer who initiated an inappropriate relationship with an inmate and smuggled cannabis into jail for him has been incarcerated. Joanne Hunter was working at Forest Bank prison in Salford when she brought the drug into the jail concealed in a juice carton and a Red Bull can.

She handed over the packages to a ‘big player’ inmate in the prison before they were passed on to Connor Willis, whom she ‘thought was in love with her’. Hunter, 28, from Bury, had begun a relationship with Willis, kissing him and sending him explicit pictures of herself, but denied that it ever became sexual.

She also admitted engaging in ‘flirty banter’ with another inmate. Prison authorities became aware of Hunter’s crimes and she confessed after being confronted.

It represents an extraordinary downfall for ‘highly educated’ Hunter, who attained a Masters degree before starting her job as a prison officer, her first employment after completing her studies. A judge described it as a ‘tragic’ case before sentencing her to three years, criticizing her ‘selfish and misguided’ behavior.

She wept and blew a kiss to her family before she was sent down to begin her sentence. Manchester Crown Court heard that Hunter began working at the jail in December 2018. Two years later, prison bosses ‘received information’ that she had been smuggling illicit items into the jail, and she was summoned for a disciplinary interview.

Hunter admitted that she had smuggled items into the prison on behalf of an inmate named Connor Willis. She told prison bosses: Someone from outside gave it to me to bring in for Cox and Connor Willis.

The M.E.N. understands ‘Cox’ to be Craig Cox, a member of a notorious Salford crime family who was recently sentenced to 13-and-a-half years in prison for his involvement in the robbery of £1m-worth of cocaine from a Liverpool gang. Hunter said that ‘some random girl’ had met her twice at Tesco in Bury and handed over packages which she then brought into jail, one being a Red Bull can, and the other a juice carton.

Hunter said she didn’t know what was inside the packages but guessed it was ‘tobacco, burn and weed or a phone’. She admitted that she had kissed Willis, 26, but denied their relationship became sexual.

He had come onto the wing where she worked, and at first she didn’t like him because he was ‘arrogant’, but ‘as time went on he grew on her’, prosecutor Rachel Widdicombe said. Hunter said they had kissed ‘several times’ and that she had sent him ‘explicit photos’.

Willis had given her his number and she would call him and send him messages. The court was told that he allegedly ‘arranged’ Hunter’s meeting with the woman at Tesco to hand over the package.

Hunter said she had brought the packages into the jail at the weekend, ‘when she knew that no-one would search her due to staff restrictions as a result of Covid’. She put the package in her pocket, left it in her office then handed it to Cox who in turn passed it to Willis, the court heard.

Prior to one of the handovers, Willis had told her he ‘needed something to help him get through Christmas’. Hunter also said that she had engaged in ‘flirty banter’ and exchanged photographs with another inmate, and exchanged messages with other inmates following their release.

Asked if she had been threatened to smuggle in packages, she told prison bosses: No, I feel stupid. She said she was offered up to £300 by Willis but she refused the cash. At one stage she claimed she felt her ‘life could be in danger’.

Asked why, she said that she knew ‘Cox and others were big players and members of an organised crime group’, Ms Widdicombe said. She said that Willis and Cox were interviewed but that ‘no proceedings were brought against them’.

Prosecutors were unable to identify the woman who Hunter had received the packages from, the court heard. Hunter, of Holbeach Close, Bury, pleaded guilty to misconduct in a public office and conspiring to convey list A articles into a prison.

Marie Durning, head of security at Forest Bank, provided a statement to the court to detail the impact of Hunter’s crimes. Summarising the statement, Ms Widdicombe said: She says that it undermines the security of the prison, it allows inmates to continue their criminal activity and leads to problems with discipline in prison.

Defending, Richard Orme described Hunter as being ‘naive’ and ‘vulnerable’. She was ripe for the picking for unscrupulous criminals to take advantage of someone in their first job out of education, he said.

She has unfortunately fallen foul of the system by her own stupidity. Hunter is a ‘highly educated’ woman with an undergraduate degree and masters degree, and had focused on her career but was inexperienced in relationships, Mr Orme said.

She believed that this unscrupulous individual [Willis] loved her, she genuinely believed that. She believed that to prove that it was reciprocated she would agree to doing what he asked.

She is someone who has been manipulated into doing this. She was used by this particular individual, who she thought was in love with her, clearly he was not.

She is the one that suffers. She will not be able to work in public services, which is where she wanted to work.

Mr Orme said Hunter had since found employment in hospitality and bar jobs. She is deeply embarrassed, her family are deeply embarrassed.

She is from a respectable, hardworking, decent, and honest family. She has learned a salutary lesson.

The judge, Recorder Paul Hodgkinson, said he was imprisoning Hunter to discourage others from doing the same.

He told her: You had the potential to be a very real asset to the prison service, not least considering your obvious intellect and intelligence. However, you chose a different path.

You decided to abuse your position of trust. Your actions in relation to this criminality strike at the very heart of the criminal justice system.

You put the public at risk, you put your fellow prison officers at risk, and of course you put other vulnerable prison officers at risk by your actions.

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