Boozy New Year’s Eve party inside Atlanta’s federal pen proves security still a problem

Photo of a New Year’s Eve party taken by an inmate inside the minimum-security federal prison camp adjacent to the U.S. Penitentiary in southeast Atlanta. (Handout/provided)

Photo of a New Year’s Eve party taken by an inmate inside the minimum-security federal prison camp adjacent to the U.S. Penitentiary in southeast Atlanta. (Handout/provided)

It's been almost a year since the first of several inmates were caught sneaking through holes in a fence at a federal prison camp in southeast Atlanta to fetch booze, drugs and cell phones to take back with them.

A new video and photos provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution by an inmate shows that the contraband continues to flow into the camp as recently as this weekend, despite the Bureau of Prison’s insistence that it has clamped down on inmates to keep banned items out of the low-security prison.

Despite a new warden and promises to patch the fence and crack down on contraband being carried into the prison, on New Year’s Eve prisoners inside were enjoying a raucous party with blaring music and a makeshift bar. On video, one inmate could be seen pouring mixed drinks for fellow prisoners who walked around with cups in hand, laughing and talking loudly.

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The inmate who provided the images — whom the AJC is not naming because he fears reprisal for coming forward — said this weekend another prisoner retrieved a backpack containing alcohol and marijuana.

One photo the inmate provided showed contraband that prison officials had seized inside the camp: cell phones, chargers, two dozen mini bottles labeled vodka, and a sharpened screw driver. Another was of a list of items seized on Jan. 10 — drugs, an “assortment of pills,” eggs, alcohol, food items from the prison’s kitchen, “broken BOP locks,” a bolt cutter and a microwave.

The inmate said the recent parties are an example of how little things have changed even though a new warden was assigned to oversee the camp adjacent to the U.S. Penitentiary on McDonough Boulevard in southeast Atlanta.

The Bureau of Prisons declined the AJC's request to interview Warden Darrin Harmon, who has been at the Atlanta post three months. But the bureau said in an email "adjustments were made to operations at the FPC (federal prison camp) to deter contraband from entering the institution. Contraband is always a concern at our institutions regardless of security level. At camps located within a city, as opposed to a rural area, there are greater opportunities for contraband to be introduced. We are always looking for ways to enhance our interdiction, detection and deterrence efforts. The new leadership at Atlanta has been working hard on this since his arrival."

In early 2017, the AJC reported on a federal complaint, which outlined a bizarre tale of how inmates at the camp had been breaking out and then sneaking back in, loaded down with contraband such as cellphones, drugs, cigarettes and takeout food. from local restaurants. In the wake of those stories, the previous prison warden retired and some inmates received additional sentences for their escapades.

The camp was opened in 1984, more than 80 years after the massive prison next door took its first inmates.

For “security reasons,” the Bureau of Prisons would not provide the number of officers assigned to supervise the 369 inmates housed in the six buildings that make up the camp. Inmates have said there are usually one or two guards to oversee inmates assigned to the camp. Since the first inmate was arrested on Feb. 3, 2017 for escaping from the prison, two of the original eight low-slug buildings that housed inmates have been closed and the number of convicts at the camp has been reduced from 465.

Located at McDonough Boulevard and New Town Circle, the camp houses what are considered low-risk, nonviolent prisoners. Many are drug offenders. There are at least two rows of fences surrounding the building — fences that have obvious patches.

February 21, 2017, Atlanta - Patches of metal are bolted to the fence along the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta to cover holes. Minimum security inmates have used the holes in the fence to smuggle contraband back into the camps for years. (DAVID BARNES / SPECIAL)

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Many federal prison camps in more rural settings do not have fences. The fence was erected around the camp in Atlanta mostly to keep outsiders from walking across the property. The prison and the camp are surrounded by homes, apartment complexes and businesses.

But, said prison expert Steve Martin, even low-level inmates need supervision.

“Even if you don’t require a lot of security (like cells), that’s not to say it doesn’t require manpower security,” Martin said. “In fact, if you have very low physical … security fences… your manpower staff is still critical. Even minimum-security inmates, when left unattended, will do what they are not supposed to do. That’s a staffing issue.”

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice, which includes the Bureau of Prisons, notified the institutions that a total of 6,000 positions out of 37,000 needed to be cut by March 1, according Vance Bryant, president of Local 1145 of the Council of Prison Locals, which represents correctional officers at the U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta. There are 96 vacant positions — 50 of them for correctional officers and 46 support positions at USP Atlanta. He said 59 of the vacant jobs now cannot be filled and more staffing cuts may be coming.

“I don’t know what DOJ is thinking,” Bryant said. “It’s getting to hinder us (in protecting) the safety and security of staff and inmates…. They’re trying to run us like a business and it’s not like that.”

The first accounts of inmates coming and going at will from the prison camp appeared in a filing in federal court a year ago.

The Atlanta Police Department, investigating as far back as January 2013, had witnessed inmates “temporarily escaping from the prison camp … and frequently returning to the camp with contraband.”

The FBI and local law enforcement were outside the fence line on Feb. 3, 2017, when Justin Stinson slid through a hole in one fence and climbed a second one to fetch a black duffel bag. He was arrested when he started to return to the prison camp. Inside the bag was a cell phone, two bottles of tequila, scissors, two cartons of Newport cigarettes, four boxes of Black and Mild cigars and food items. Stinson, who would have finished his sentence for possession of a firearm by a prohibited person at the end of this year, pleaded guilty April 20 to escape and was sentenced to an extra 15 months in federal prison.

His arrest was quickly followed by others.

Fernando Settles, who is serving 20 years for “conspiratorial and substantive drug trafficking,” was caught in some woods outside the fence along the perimeter of the prison camp. He pleaded guilty to escape and was sentenced to another 15 months in prison.

Inmate Deldrick Jackson and fiancee Kelly Bass were allegedly running an inmate shuttle service, driving camp prisoners to nearby restaurants and motels and then bringing them back to the prison. Bass pleaded guilty on June 5 to helping Jackson escape and was sentenced to six months in prison. Jackson pleaded guilty to escape on May 16 but withdrew that plea in late August. He again pleaded guilty to escape on Nov. 14 and he is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 22.

“Under staffing or staff complicity are the only two things that permit that,” Martin, the prison expert, said.