In the late ’60s and early ’70s, late-night talk show host and comedian Dick Cavett used to tell stories about his none-too-bright cousin Norman.

How dumb was Norman? Well, in one of a long series of failures, Norman set out to become a zookeeper, but couldn’t make a success of it. Why not? Because – wait for it – he tried to run his zoo on the honor system.

Norman’s recent whereabouts is unknown, but the Atlanta police department or the FBI may want to check if he’s found work at its federal penitentiary in the southeast section of the city. Atlanta police and the local FBI office have been investigating for years what they see as the uncanny ability of federal inmates to temporarily escape from confinement, and then after frolics and diversions outside the prison walls, to return to the inside when they choose to do so.

Run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the Atlanta Penitentiary dates back to the McKinley administration and has in its day housed such notorious inmates as Al Capone, Mickey Cohen, Whitey Bulger and Carlo Ponzi. It’s now a medium-security facility for male inmates, with a satellite camp for minimum-security male inmates.

Maybe too minimum security, say Atlanta police and FBI special agents. On Feb. 3 this year, inmate Justin Stinson, serving time on a firearms charge, was arrested just outside the prison, as he was in the process of sneaking back into the facility, from which he had earlier snuck out. In his time outside, Stinson had managed to acquire a duffel bag holding two bottles of tequila, a couple cartons of cigarettes, four boxes of cigars, a cellphone and various items of food. He admitted to the FBI he was smuggling the contraband inside the prison.

This wasn’t the first time Atlanta Penitentiary inmates have been discovered breaking into the facility. According to a complaint filed by an FBI special agent after Stinson’s arrest, the Atlanta police first found inmates taking do-it-yourself furloughs from the federal penitentiary in January 2013. Cops saw a vehicle parked right outside the prison fence, with its occupants wearing ski masks and jumpsuits, and went to investigate.

Exiting the vehicle, the occupants quickly climbed the perimeter fence and ran inside the prison. When the cops searched the vehicle, they found two dozen cellphones, a couple loaded handguns and ample amounts of liquor. On numerous other occasions, police discovered man-sized holes cut into the prison fence and recovered contraband hidden nearby.

Just this January, the Atlanta police put surveillance cameras along the fence, and periodically found footage of inmates leaving the prison to retrieve large bags, then bring them into the prison, or clamber into vehicles waiting outside the prison fence.

So what does the BOP have to say by way of explaining how it has managed to have a penitentiary that is so occupant-friendly that its inmates can readily escape, at least temporarily, but so accommodating that they seem intent on returning almost immediately, bringing with them a few items to make their stay more enjoyable? So far, the agency has not offered any comment on the record.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of the Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016) and College for Convicts(McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News and Prison Legal News. This article is partially adapted from the Federal Prison Handbook. He can be found online at PrisonerResource.com 

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).