by Casey J. Bastian
The U.S. Penitentiary (USP) in southeast Atlanta, a federal complex that has been at the center of multiple scandals and allegations of corruption over the last decade, was “nearly vacant” at the end of August 2021, when press reports said that all but 134 of some 1,800 prisoners had been transferred out during an extended lockdown that began two months earlier.
On June 22, 2021, the facility for men—which includes a medium-security prison, a camp for minimum-security prisoners, as well as a detention center for pre-trial detainees and those being held for transfers—was placed on “modified operations” after an internal memorandum was issued by Deputy Captain R. Brownfield, stating that “effective immediately, and until further notice, all inmates will remain secured in their cells.”
“Specifically,” Brownfield’s memo blamed “the increase in prohibited activity from the inmate population, and noted security concerns” related to “the prevalence of narcotics and cellular devices being used by the inmate population.”
On the day the memorandum was issued, a 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,” the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported—all just in the education department.
By August 2021, over 1,600 prisoners had been transferred to other facilities, with the majority shipping out in July. Sources said that eventually every prisoner would be transferred to other institutions. But the scandals and corruption cannot be blamed only on prisoners.
In early July 2021, slightly more than two weeks after the lockdown began, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) issued an additional memorandum to staff naming four senior officers and one wage supervisor who had been barred from the Atlanta prison and should not be allowed to enter the facility “under any circumstances.”
While the memo said the staff members were being barred from entry “in the interest of the efficiency of the service,” an unnamed BOP lieutenant employed at the Atlanta prison said too many of his fellow staff members were “not on the up and up.”
“I’d say 20 to 30 percent of the officers were dirty,” he added. “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.”
In mid-August 2021, as the prison emptied out, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at the federal Department of Justice, BOP’s parent agency, issued a report that blasted security lapses at an unnamed facility. One longtime USP Atlanta employee who reviewed it said the conditions mirrored those found at the prison complex in the Peach City.
“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 detectors without being screened,” the OIG report found, adding that “after discussing the matter with BOP personnel at the facility, we are concerned that this presents systemic concerns.”
Evidence of lax security at USP Atlanta has been accumulating for years. Inadequate staffing gets blamed most often. However, numerous stories of rambunctious parties and nearly unlimited contraband implicate staff complicity. The same longtime employee said nobody would search incoming guards, who frequently carry large duffle bags and backpacks.
There is plenty of financial incentive, too. Inside the prison, a carton of cigarettes can be worth as much as $1,000. It is known that packages of methamphetamines were being hidden in various places within the facility’s structure itself, employees said, adding that these hiding places can be found all over the prison and have undermined infrastructure integrity. When employees would complain, they added, their concerns were ignored by top officials, including the warden.
“It was nearly impossible for me to do my job,” said the unidentified lieutenant.
In April 2021, shortly before the institution went on modified operations, a prisoner housed in the medium-security prison was charged with operating a drug-trafficking ring from his cell, distributing methamphetamines in coordination with Mexican drug cartels.
Another prisoner recorded a 49-minute-long murder confession in 2019, bragging that he had not been caught and broadcasting it on Facebook Live using a contraband cell phone.
At the minimum-security camp, a hole in the fence allowed prisoners to leave and bring back alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, food, and cell phones until one was caught in 2017. A new warden took over then. But a year later, prisoners were still leaving the camp to bring back illicit goods for parties.
In 2018 a former guard was convicted and sentenced to prison for accepting $3,500 in bribes to smuggle tobacco into USP-Atlanta. In 2014 another guard was charged with bringing a variety of drugs, including heroin, into the minimum-security camp. In 2011 prison physician Lewis Jackson was accused of molesting three prisoners he was supposed to be treating. One used a cell phone to make a recording of an incident, and Jackson admitted to the conduct.
On top of that, the prison recorded four prisoner deaths in less than a year between August 2020 and June 2021. Still, one employee complained on Facebook that BOP had “gone nuclear” by getting rid of so many USP Atlanta employees in its effort to root out corrupt staff. Others believe it was long overdue, including one employee who said on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, “We’ve been shouting from the rooftops for years and they didn’t do a damn thing. It’s been a long time coming.”
Prisoners are expected back at some point, according to an answer sheet provided to employees by BOP. The same answer sheet also said that “at this time” there are no plans to close USP Atlanta for good. However, many staff members will not be returning to work. In addition, an enormous amount of maintenance and repairs will be required to restore the 120-year-old facility to a safe and secure condition. So, who will do that? According to BOP: “The plan is to receive approximately 250 Low Security inmates to serve as work cadre for the USP.”
Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution, WAGA-TV
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