ATLANTA (AP) — A federal inmate and his fiancée ran an "inmate taxi service," ferrying inmates to restaurants, hotels and homes and returning them to the prison, authorities said Thursday.
The pair charged a fee to transport inmates who were able to easily escape through holes in a fence at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, and many of the inmates returned with contraband items, including booze and cigarettes, prosecutors said.
Deldrick Jackson, 41, and Kelly Bass, 38, face charges related to the escapes, prosecutors said.
Paul Cognac, an attorney for Jackson, said his client pleaded not guilty and that he had no other comment. Brian Mendelsohn, an attorney for Bass, said in an email that he had no comment.
The prison, operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, is a medium-security lockup for men and also has a detention center for pre-trial inmates and a satellite camp for minimum-security male inmates. Since January 2013, Atlanta police have been investigating temporary escapes by prison camp inmates who return with contraband, according to a court filing.
A phone at the penitentiary rang unanswered Thursday, and no one responded immediately to an email seeking comment.
"Inmates who escape from custody present a threat to the safety of citizens in the area. Safety concerns also arise when inmates return with contraband to feed a thriving black market," U.S. Attorney John Horn said in a statement.
From November through April, Bass received about $4,000 in money transfers from accounts associated with federal inmates or their families, prosecutors said.
Surveillance video footage from the prison camp and a nearby hotel on Jan. 28 shows several people running from the prison and getting into what appears to be Bass' silver SUV, according to an FBI agent's sworn statement. The SUV arrives at the hotel and leaves a few hours later, dropping off the prisoners.
On April 13, law enforcement officers stopped a silver SUV driven by Bass and in which Jackson was riding. Officers searched the SUV and found two cellphones, a large box filled with packs of cigarettes and several bottles of alcohol, the FBI agent's statement said.
After he was advised of his rights, Jackson admitted he was a federal prison inmate and that he had escaped to have sex by walking out the prison's front gate, as he had multiple times before, the FBI agent's statement said.
Another federal inmate, Justin Stinson, last month pleaded guilty to escaping from the Atlanta federal prison. He left solely to smuggle contraband back in, highlighting "a recurring problem with prisoners leaving the camp," Horn said at the time.
Atlanta police officers in December found two holes big enough for an adult male to fit through in the prison fence and also found a prison-issued laundry bag, prison-issued gloves, an MP3 player and several trash bags outside the prison grounds nearby, according to an FBI agent's sworn statement.
Atlanta police on Jan. 18 installed video surveillance cameras along the fence line near the holes, and inmates were seen leaving the prison to retrieve large bags to bring back and entering waiting vehicles, the agent wrote.
The FBI and other law enforcement officers were watching the prison fence line in that area on Feb. 3 and saw Stinson escape by climbing through a hole in one fence and then climbing over the outer prison fence, the agent wrote. Stinson got a large black duffel bag from a stopped car and as he was walking back toward the prison, the FBI arrested him.
Stinson had a cellphone, a pair of scissors, two 1.75-liter bottles of Jose Cuervo tequila, two cartons of Newport cigarettes, four boxes of Black and Mild cigars and some food. He admitted to escaping from the prison and said he planned to smuggle the bag back inside, the agent wrote.