EXCLUSIVE: Atlanta federal pen nearly vacant amid corruption investigation

An investigation into alleged longstanding corruption at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta has led federal officials to reassign virtually all of the prison’s management team and transfer all but about 100 offenders to correctional facilities out of state, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned. (AJC file)

Credit: File photo

Credit: File photo

An investigation into alleged longstanding corruption at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta has led federal officials to reassign virtually all of the prison’s management team and transfer all but about 100 offenders to correctional facilities out of state, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned. (AJC file)

An investigation into alleged corruption at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta has led federal officials to ban several prison staffers and nearly empty out the prison, transferring about 1,100 offenders to correctional facilities in other states , The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

As of Friday, 134 inmates remained inside the Atlanta prison, according to its official website. Back in March, it had more than 1,800 inmates. Employees have been told that ultimately all prisoners from the penitentiary and inmates at the adjacent minimum security camp will be transferred.

The prison went into an institutional lockdown on June 22 after receiving a “serious threat” and an institution emergency was declared, a staff memo obtained by the AJC states. Two days later, an official with the Federal Bureau of Prisons told the staff in a follow-up memo the lockdown was being extended after investigators discovered a “prevalence of narcotics and cellular devices being used by the inmate population.”

That same day a prison teacher found 24 cell phones, 30 chargers, ear buds, Under Armour long underwear, wrapped bundles of a “leafy substance,” weed grinders, assorted chains and necklaces and one bottle of air freshener. And that was just in the Education Department.

A little more than two weeks later, BOP sent out memos notifying staff that four senior officers, along with one wage supervisor, had been barred from the federal pen and should not be allowed entry “under any circumstance.”

They were barred “in the interest of the efficiency of the service,” the memos stated.

To employees at the prison, though, the opaque wording concealed nothing. One complained that the Bureau of Prisons had “gone nuclear” in rooting out problem employees, while others said an overhaul was long overdue.

“We’ve been shouting from the rooftops for years and they didn’t do a damn thing,” said one longtime employee, who fears losing his job if his identity were revealed. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Inmates were transferred out the last week of July.

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request for comment.

The southeast Atlanta complex is a medium-security prison for men. The complex also has a detention center for pre-trial detainees and inmates being held for transfer, as well as an adjacent camp for minimum security inmates.

Evidence has piled up in recent years about lax security at the complex, with lapses blamed at times on inadequate staffing. Tales of raucous parties and free-flowing contraband, though, pointed to staff complicity.

This memo dated June 24, 2021, details modified lockdown procedures at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta and cites widespread use of drugs and cellphones by the inmates.

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For years, some inmates at the minimum-security prison camp would come and go through a hole in the fence. A shuttle service was allegedly set up by inmates to transport other camp prisoners to local restaurants. But there were no arrests until 2017, when the FBI and police stationed officers on the other side of fence line to greet inmates on their way out.

Prisoners used cellphones for everything from self-incriminating Facebook Live sessions to allegedly operating a drug-trafficking organization from a prison cell.

Just last week, the U.S. Office of the Inspector General released a scathing report on security lapses at an unnamed federal prison. The longtime employee who spoke with the AJC said the conditions outlined in the report mirror those at the Atlanta pen.

“A review of the facility’s video monitoring system revealed that staff were able to enter the facility during the night shift and walk around the metal detector without being screened,” the inspector general’s report states. “After discussing the matter with BOP personnel at the facility, we are concerned that this presents systemic concerns.”

The longtime employee said some guards would come in with backpacks and duffel bags that were never searched. The source told the AJC a carton of cigarettes could be worth $1,000.

Parcels of methamphetamine would turn up in hiding places all over the prison. Those hiding places exist all over the prison and have taken a toll on its infrastructure, the longtime employee said.

It’ll be up to the prisoners who stayed behind to tackle the physical rehabilitation of a facility that in January turns 120 years old.

“The plan is to receive approximately 250 Low Security inmates to serve as a work cadre for the entire USP to include outside areas,” BOP stated in an answer sheet provided to employees.

While offenders are ultimately expected back ― that same answer sheet said “at this time” officials were unaware of any plans to shutter the prison for good or to assign staff to other Bureau of Prison facilities ― many employees may not be returning.

“They went nuclear instead of being surgical,” one lieutenant wrote on Facebook. He kept his job, he said, because he’s so close to retirement. Most of his colleagues in the lieutenant class were transferred elsewhere.

“They have ruined lives and put an incredible stress on families,” said the lieutenant. The AJC is not naming him because he could not be reached for comment.

The longtime prison employee told the AJC “there’s lots of good people who are being forced to leave.” But too many were not on the up and up, he said.

“I’d say 20 to 30% of the officers were dirty,” he said. “And that’s just totally unacceptable. You’re always going to have a few. Most prisons have one, two or maybe three bad apples. Not a quarter of the staff.”

Complaints to top officials, from the warden on down, largely went unanswered, he said.

“It made it nearly impossible for me to do my job,” he said.

Notable scandals at USP Atlanta

This past April, an inmate in the medium-security prison was accused of running a drug-trafficking organization from his cell. Investigators said the man was overseeing distribution of methamphetamine, in coordination with Mexico drug cartels. The case is pending.

In 2019, a prisoner used a cellphone to record a 49-minute long Facebook Live session, where he bragged that he had murdered a man and got away with it.

In 2018, a former correctional officer was sentenced to prison for accepting $3,500 in bribes to smuggle tobacco to prisoners.

For years, inmates at the minimum security prison camp would temporarily leave through a hole in the fence to fetch booze, drugs, cigarettes, cell phones and food. In 2017, some were finally caught, and a new warden was named. Yet nearly a year later, inmates were still leaving the prison camp to get contraband for parties.

In 2014, a guard was charged with smuggling heroin and other drugs into the lower-security camp.

In 2011, a prison physician, Lewis Jackson, molested three inmates seeking medical treatment at the USP. One of the inmates made an undercover recording, and Jackson later admitted he sexually assaulted the men.

How we got the story

Did you know there are almost no prisoners left in the U.S. prison in Atlanta? That was the sensational tip The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently received, and it turned out to be true. To verify it, the AJC connected with sources inside the building who provided key documents. More information came from social media posts and others familiar with the situation at the facility.

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