Patches of metal cover holes that minimum-security inmates have cut into the fence around the Atlanta federal penitentiary's prison camp as they escaped and then sneaked back in. (David Barnes / For the AJC)
Photo: David Barnes
Photo: David Barnes

At an Atlanta federal prison camp, drugs, booze and Mexican takeout

Inmates break out — and back in again — with no fear of being caught

The grill is hot and on any given night it could be cooking up cheeseburgers with bacon, ribs steeped in Jack Daniels sauce or chicken rubbed with spices. Sometimes shrimp, calamari and clams are on the menu. Liquor and beer are readily available. So are marijuana, cocaine and pain killers. There can also be takeout from a nearby Mexican restaurant.

It’s just another night inside the minimum-security federal prison camp in southeast Atlanta. Such activities are illegal — forbidden by prison rules and federal law — but an inmate inside the prison said they are commonplace in a facility where prisoners routinely escape through poorly patched holes in the fence.

Earlier this month, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on a federal complaint, which outlined a bizarre tale of how inmates at the camp adjacent to the U.S. Penitentiary have been breaking out and then sneaking back in, loaded down with contraband such as cellphones, cigarettes and possibly even handguns.

After that story ran, an inmate inside the camp contacted the AJC and provided jaw-dropping details about brazen activities taking place at the camp. The inmate — whom the AJC is not naming because he fears reprisal for coming forward — said there is a “sophisticated operation” involving teams of inmates who have no fear of being caught.

A prison guard union official said only one or two guards watch over 500 inmates housed in eight buildings at the camp.

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to numerous requests for comment from the AJC. The Atlanta Police Department pointed the AJC to an incident report that says they notified the prison and the FBI after spotting inmates slipping back onto prison property through a hole in the outer chain-link fence in December 2013. The FBI, which the APD also notified a year ago and again in January, did not respond to a request for comment Monday but previously had declined to discuss an ongoing investigation.

Mexican takeout, hamburgers from Wendy’s

But Vance Bryant, president of Local 1145 of the Council of Prison Locals, the union for correctional officers at the Atlanta federal prison, had plenty to say.

Bryant said escapes at the prison “have been an ongoing problem for years.”

“You can see once they (inmates) cut a hole, they (prison officials) put a patch on it. And they cut another hole and they patch it. And they cut another hole.”

Closeup of a patch in the fence. (David Barnes / For the AJC)
Photo: David Barnes

The inmate who talked to the AJC is a drug offender. Court and prison records confirmed his identity, but he also provided a picture of his prison ID card and a picture of himself as additional verification.

The details he provided could not be independently confirmed. But they align with Bryant’s description of inmates escaping. Such accounts were also outlined in legal documents.

The inmate also provided access to photographs backing up some of his more troubling claims. Some showed inmates smoking what appeared to be marijuana cigarettes and others using their prison IDs to line up a substance that appeared to be cocaine on a mirror.

The inmate’s account provided a window into a freewheeling federal prison camp marketplace where packets of “Chicken of the Sea” mackerel double as currency. He described ordering tacos from a nearby Mexican restaurant and hamburgers and fries from Wendy’s.

“Here in the camp, the commissary sucks,” the inmate said. “And it’s always out of everything.”

“Everything the inmates bring in is things to make our lives easier,” he continued. “We get out and do all kinds of things. We go get girls, get things to sell in here. It’s a coordinated move.”

A car passes the patched fence at the prison camp. (David Barnes / For the AJC)
Photo: David Barnes

Inmates crossing the street

Located at the intersection of McDonough Boulevard and New Town Circle, the camp houses what are considered low-risk, nonviolent prisoners. Many are drug offenders. The camp is made up of eight low-slung concrete buildings where inmates are housed in dormitory-like conditions. There are at least two rows of fences outside. All along the fence line are obvious patches.

“It looks like a quilt,” said Bryant.

He blamed the problems on understaffing at the camp and the prison next door. And now, he said, the problem is aggravated by a hiring freeze that doesn’t allow retiring officers to be replaced.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. John Lewis, whose district includes the pen, said there had been no recent funding cuts that would have led to reduced staffing.

Nonetheless, Bryant said inmates have so little supervision that it’s common for people in the community, especially those living in the neighboring apartments on New Town Circle, to call the prison with reports of inmates crossing the street.

The criminal complaint an FBI agent filed in federal court laid out some details of the comings and goings after one prisoner was caught Feb. 3. Justin Stinson was returning to the prison camp with a bag containing tequila, a cellphone, scissors, cigarettes, cigars and food, the complaint said. Stinson was indicted on Valentine’s Day on one count of escape and five counts of possession of prohibited items. He is to be arraigned Wednesday.

The complaint said inmates had been escaping and returning for years.

On Jan. 29, 2013, an Atlanta police officer saw four men wearing ski masks sitting in a car parked at the prison camp’s outer fence, according to a police report. The officer wrote in a report that the men matched “the description of suspects committing robberies in the area.”

Three of them ran to the fence, scaled it and disappeared over a hill and into the dark. The fourth drove off but quickly ditched the car, which was reported stolen later that morning, and ran into a “wood line” at the prison camp.

The APD report said the officer found in the car 120 Bud Light beers, three cases of whiskey, 24 cellphones and two handguns loaded with hollow-point bullets. The officer contacted the prison and then faxed a report to the FBI.

APD: Officer stopped federal prison gun smugglers

The federal complaint said the APD gave the information to the FBI’s public corruption squad last March. In December, an Atlanta police officer saw more large holes cut in the fence, the complaint said.

According to the complaint, APD surveillance cameras placed along the fence line at New Town Circle on Jan. 18 recorded images of inmates slipping through or climbing over the fence to retrieve bags or climb into waiting cars.

APD notified the FBI and on Feb. 3 federal and local authorities were waiting for Stinson, who was in prison for “possession of a firearm by a prohibited person.”

The inmate who contacted the AJC said after Stinson’s arrest, officers searched the living areas. But the smuggling operation continued, the prisoner said.

“Tantamount to no supervision”

Brenda Jones, Lewis’ spokeswoman, said the congressman “was alarmed and deeply disturbed” when he heard about the underground prison marketplace, and he has asked the Department of Justice for answers.

“Representative Lewis is demanding that the public get the answers they deserve about the nature of these security problems and wants to hear DOJ plans to address this problem,” Jones wrote in an email.

The inmate and Bryant said prisoners can move freely because there is only one officer during weekdays and two at night and on weekends supervising almost 500 prisoners.

Steve Martin, a consultant who has worked in state and federal prisons and has served as a court-appointed monitor, called that “tantamount to no supervision.”

“You don’t leave felons, be they minimum or maximum security, unsupervised under any circumstances,” he said.

But that is what is happening at the Atlanta prison camp, Bryant and the inmate said.

The officer on duty is usually in the area of the four living quarters nearest to McDonough Boulevard, the inmate told the AJC. The flagrant use of drugs, alcohol and cellphones, as well as cooking on an electric grill or in deep fryers, happens in the back, he said.

“The back units are the party units,” the inmate said.

One photo he provided showed 10 cans of beer, icing in a plastic tub.

Patches of metal are bolted to the fence at the Atlanta federal penitentiary prison camp. Minimum-security inmates have routinely cut holes in the fence so they can escape and then sneak back in. (David Barnes / For the AJC)
Photo: David Barnes

Lookouts and holes in the fence

There also was a dark and grainy video of someone in gray appearing to run from a line of trees, supposedly with supplies just retrieved from the street.

“This is a neat place to be at,” one inmate is heard saying on the video as he and another wait for a prisoner to return with the night’s treasure.

According to the inmate who spoke to the AJC, the excursions from the prison go something like this:

Teams — they call themselves ninjas — operate with at least seven prisoners, one to retrieve bags of contraband and the rest to serve as lookouts. There are also non-inmate lookouts posted at the apartment complex on New Town Circle, the inmate told the AJC.

With far more inmates than officers, the prisoners have eyes everywhere.

The prisoner in front keeps the team apprised of the corrections officer’s movements. Others track a prison truck that drives the perimeter.

“Once everything is clear we head out behind the rec building, through a hole in the fence and to the dugout on the softball field,” the inmate said.

After ensuring everything is clear, they head to another pre-cut hole in the fence. Holes are pre-cut with bolt cutters and the gap is closed temporarily with zip ties.

“We cut the zip ties and get through the hole and run down the hill, across a … ditch and towards the final outside perimeter fence,” the inmate said. “We make sure everything looks clear when we get to the last fence.”

A call is made to a “contact” on the outside that it’s time to leave the bags.

“We call our people back in the camp to ask if everything is OK and inform them that we are going back in,” the inmate said. “We head back in with our load of stuff, sometimes encountering other inmates on a similar mission. We get back and deliver the bags to their owners, who then proceed to take the contents and store them.”

For the most part, inmates use their own currency, packages of mackerel, though cash is sometimes exchanged. Fried chicken and ribs cost five mackerel packages. A pack of cigarettes sells for $20 or 40 mackerel. A can of Budweiser beer will bring $10 or 20 mackerel. Inmates get $150 for a $60 cellphone.

It’s a free market system and you can get most anything if you can pay.

“I have to stop and think, ‘Am I really in prison?’” the inmate said.

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