The Atlanta Federal Penitentiary’s Hollywood connections

Famous inmates at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and the movie characters they inspired.


The Atlanta Federal Penitentiary has had its share of famous inmates over the years, including several who have inspired characters in Hollywood crime films. Here are some of those inmates and the films that you might know them from, along with other famous prisoners of the facility. 

But first, some history: The penitentiary was first conceived in 1891 with the Three Prisons Act, which also created the Federal Prison System. Along with Leavenworth and McNeil Island, the Atlanta facility would be among the first three operated by the Department of Justice. Its location on McDonough Boulevard was established by another act of Congress in 1899, and by 1902 the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary was taking its first prisoners. It would soon hold some of the country's biggest names in organized crime. 

IGNAZIO "LUPO THE WOLF" SAIETTA ("The Godfather, Part II"): Saietta was born in Corleone, Sicily, and fled to New York in 1889 at age 12 after killing a man. He became a feared neighborhood Mafia boss of Little Italy and eventually formed the citywide Morello crime family. He is thought to have been involved in at least 60 murders but was never convicted. He was held twice in Atlanta—from 1910-1920 for counterfeiting and from 1936-46 for racketeering. In 1916, Saietta was implicated in the murder of an Atlanta deputy warden, but no charges were ever filed. Saietta's menacing persona inspired Don Fanucci, aka the "Black Hand," who is killed by a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) in the second part of "The Godfather" trilogy. 

JIMMY "THE GENT" BURKE ("Goodfellas"): Burke was the Irish-American gangster who worked with the Italian-American Lucchese crime family. His associate Henry Hill became an FBI informant whose story was the basis for the book "Wise Guy," which was later translated to film in Martin Scorsese's classic "Goodfellas." 

In 1972, Burke and Hill were convicted of extortion and Burke served six years in Atlanta. Upon his release in 1978 to a minimum-security halfway house in New York, he masterminded the Lufthansa heist, which took place later that year. That robbery netted $5.8 million in cash and jewels from a vault at the JFK International Airport, and the ensuing investigation stoked Burke's paranoia, leading him to begin murdering his associates, according to Hill. Burke would later be convicted in 1982 for a points-fixing scheme involving the Boston College basketball team and spent the rest of his life in prison. He died in 1996. Burke was played by Robert De Niro in "Goodfellas." 

AL "SCARFACE" CAPONE ("The Untouchables"): The infamous Chicago mob boss controlled the city's gambling, prostitution, racketeering and bootlegging during Prohibition, but it was tax evasion that eventually brought him to justice in 1931. U.S. Prohibition Bureau agent Eliot Ness's pursuit of Capone has been the subject of dozens of films and TV shows, including the 1987 film starring Robert De Niro as Capone. Where that movie ended, Capone's time in the Atlanta penitentiary began—as prisoner 85. During his two years there, he suffered from syphilis and was sometimes targeted by other inmates, according to a cellmate's memoir. Capone's family rented a home on Oakdale Avenue in Druid Hills for those years. Perhaps this is why the gangster is associated with so many urban legends surrounding Ponce de Leon Avenue. (Believe those stories at your own risk.) In 1934, Capone was transferred to the newly opened Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary, then was released to a Baltimore mental hospital five years later, where he eventually died in 1947. 

FRANK ABAGNALE ("Catch Me If You Can"): Today, Abagnale is a respected security consultant who helps train FBI field agents. But in his youth, he was a forger and con artist who at turns disguised himself as a pilot, attorney, teacher and once as an Atlanta pediatrician. 

You might also remember Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of him in the 2002 film "Catch Me If You Can," which included a party scene at Riverbend Apartments. After his capture in France in 1969, Abagnale spent time in French and Swedish prisons before he was sent to the U.S. to serve 12 years for forgery. It was at the Atlanta penitentiary that Abagnale made a legendary escape in 1971. He convinced the guards that he was an undercover prison inspector posing as an inmate, and was there to report on the facility. Later he had a friend pose as an FBI agent, and the guards allowed Abagnale to walk out of the building to meet with him. He was recaptured two months later and would serve the rest of his time in a Virginia prison before going straight. 

MEYER HARRIS "MICKEY" COHEN ("Bugsy" and "L.A. Confidential"): A boxer turned mob enforcer, Cohen began working for mob boss Bugsy Siegel in Las Vegas in the 1940s. After Siegel's assassination in 1947, Cohen took over operations in both Las Vegas and Los Angeles, where he extended his influence over the Hollywood entertainment industry. His time as a West Coast kingpin has been the subject of several films, including "Bugsy" and "L.A. Confidential," in which Cohen was portrayed by Harvey Keitel and Paul Guilfoyle, respectively. Cohen was convicted of tax evasion twice—once in 1951 and again in 1961. This second time, he served a few months in Alcatraz (even bailing out of the prison) before being transferred to Atlanta. In 1963, he was attacked by another Atlanta inmate with a lead pipe, which left him partially paralyzed. He was released in 1972 and died four years later. 

JAMES JOSEPH "WHITEY" BULGER ("Black Mass," "The Departed"): Bulger was a crime boss with the Winter Hill Gang in Boston. His criminal career began in the early 1940s and it was from 1956-1959 that he was held in the Atlanta penitentiary as part of a nine-year prison term for armed robbery (he also did time in Alcatraz and Leavenworth). Bulger claims that during his time in Atlanta, he was a subject of LSD experiments conducted by the CIA in exchange for time off his sentence. In 1975, Bulger became a "Top Echelon" FBI informant (a claim he denies), and for the next 20 years he managed to flip the script and manipulate his handler. This allowed him to continue his criminal activities while virtually protected. In 1995, he disappeared with his girlfriend until the two were finally caught in 2011. Bulger, now 88, is serving two life sentences in Florida. His story was the subject of the 2015 film "Black Mass" starring Johnny Depp. Bulger was also the inspiration for Jack Nicholson's fictional character Frank Costello in the 2006 film "The Departed." 

DENNY McLAIN ("The Upside of Anger"): The legendary Detroit Tigers pitcher was the last to win 30 games in a season and led his team to win the World Series in 1968. After finishing his MLB career in 1973 for the Atlanta Braves, McLain became a serial entrepreneur. Some of those ventures were charming, such as his years as a lounge player who promoted Hammond Organs. 

He also owned Gaffers, a bar that lasted for six months in the Georgian Terrace Hotel. Other ventures put him in trouble with the law. In 1985, he was convicted of racketeering, conspiracy, extortion and drug trafficking for activities conducted while he worked at a Tampa mortgage company. He ended up serving 30 months in prison, with 10 of those in the Atlanta penitentiary. In 1987, McLain was transferred out of Atlanta only two months before Cuban prisoners would spark a large prison riot. He told Sports Illustrated the next year that he witnessed plenty of abuse by guards toward the Cubans. He called the Atlanta penitentiary "the filthiest place on the face of the earth." In 1996, he was convicted again, this time for embezzlement, mail fraud and conspiracy, for his part in looting a meat-packing company's pension fund. (McLain has maintained his innocence.) He spent six years in a Pennsylvania prison and was released in 2003. Today he's an occasional sports commentator and talk-radio host in Detroit. McLain inspired the Kevin Costner character Denny Davies in the 2005 film "The Upside of Anger." In that movie, the fictitious Denny is a washed-up World Series winning baseball player working as a Detroit radio DJ. 

CHARLES HARRELSON ("No Country for Old Men," sort of): Harrelson was a contract killer and the father of actor Woody Harrelson. By 1973, Charles Harrelson had already been acquitted of one 1968 murder charge and had received 15 years in prison for another. He served five years before being released on good behavior in 1978. The next year, a drug dealer hired Harrelson to kill U.S. District Judge John H. Wood in San Antonio. During a police standoff, Harrelson shouted that he killed the judge and John F. Kennedy too. He later disavowed those claims, saying they were made in the heat of the moment, but his name is still attached to some JFK conspiracy theories. For the judge killing, Harrelson received two life sentences and was sent to Atlanta. In 1995, he was caught trying to escape over the penitentiary wall and was subsequently transferred to a supermax prison in Denver. In 2003, the drug dealer who had Judge Wood killed said that Harrelson was innocent. Woody Harrelson's attempts to get a new trial for his father were unsuccessful. Charles Harrelson died in 2007. That same year, Cormac McCarthy's novel "No Country for Old Men," which mentions the Judge Wood killing, was made into a movie co-starring ... Woody Harrelson. The Coen Brothers classic makes no mention of Wood's death.

VINCENT PAPA ("The French Connection II," sort of): Another member of the Lucchese crime family, Papa and his crew became famous for a series of drug heists, over three years, that took place right under the nose of the NYPD. Corrupt NYPD detectives were in on the scheme, which involved the large stash of heroin seized in the real-life "French Connection" drug bust of 1962. From 1969-1972, Papa's crew gradually replaced 400 pounds of the heroin in an evidence storage room with flour, then resold it on the streets. The scheme was eventually unmasked and in 1975 Papa started serving a 15 year sentence in Atlanta. That same year, a sequel to the Oscar-winning 1969 film "The French Connection" was released, albeit with a fictionalized plot that bore little resemblance to Papa's fraud. In 1977, Papa was assassinated in the prison after it was revealed that he had cooperated with investigators.

And now some other famous Atlanta Penitentiary inmates: 

MARCUS GARVEY: Garvey was a self-taught Jamaican social activist and black nationalist whose views made him a lightning rod among black leaders and the FBI alike. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in 1914 and moved to Harlem in 1916, where he promoted black economic independence through his newspaper and businesses. Some historians have interpreted his conviction of mail fraud in 1922 as a politically motivated prosecution inspired by Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement. He served two years of a four-year sentence in Atlanta before being deported to Jamaica in 1927. He later moved to London, where he died in 1940.

CARLO PONZI: The man for whom "Ponzi scheme" was named served time in Atlanta, but not for running a fraudulent investment operation. Ponzi, an Italian immigrant who came to Boston in 1903, ran a smuggling scheme to bring Italian immigrants across the border. He had previously served time in Canada for check forgery. During his time in Atlanta's prison he served as a translator for its most notorious resident, Ignazio Lupo (see above). He also befriended another inmate—Charles Morse, a once-powerful New York banker whose speculation in copper sparked the Panic of 1907.

One letter from Ponzi's prison file indicates that he worked for the Venable Brothers (who then owned Stone Mountain) and helped build the Venable home at the corner of Ponce de Leon and Oakdale Road (today's St. John's Lutheran Church). In 1919, Ponzi began the scheme that made him famous—selling postal reply coupons to investors, then using that money to pay dividends to investors in an old pyramid scheme. The scam soon fell apart and Ponzi was convicted of fraud in 1920. He served four years in Plymouth, Mass., then skipped bail while facing state charges. He was eventually caught and returned to prison until 1934, when he was deported to Italy. He died, broke, in 1949.

EUGENE DEBS: Debs was a labor organizer who ran for president while serving as an inmate at the Atlanta penitentiary. The onetime Indiana state legislator became famous for leading railworker strikes in the 1890s, one of which, the Pullman Strike, landed him in jail for six months for violating an injunction against the strike. In 1897, he declared himself a Socialist and ran as that party's candidate for president five times—in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920. His final race came as inmate 9653—Debs was serving a 10-year prison sentence for sedition after urging resistance to the military draft of World War I. Debs received 818,299 votes, or 3.4 percent. He would spend three years of that sentence in Atlanta. Debs' health steadily declined and in 1921, President Warren Harding commuted his sentence. Debs left the Atlanta penitentiary on Christmas Day 1921 (pictured above) while surrounded by inmates' cheers. He died in 1926.

NICODEMO "LITTLE NICKY" SCARFO: Scarfo was a Philadelphia mob boss who became famous for running his crime operations from prison in the early 1980s. He first served time in prison in 1964—only 10 months—for manslaughter after stabbing a man to death in a fight. In 1971, he was required to appear before a panel of investigators but refused to cooperate. That earned him a year in jail for contempt of court. His violent criminal career flourished in the 1970s (he would later be indicted for being involved in the 1978 murder of a municipal court judge). Two years later, he was arrested for a gangland murder. He was found not guilty of the murder but still received two years in a Texas prison on a weapons charge. During this time, a violent power struggle erupted within his organization back in Philadelphia, resulting in the assassination of two of Scarfo's bosses. This made Scarfo the boss, albeit from prison. He was released in 1984 but was arrested again in 1987 for extortion, with more serious murder and RICO convictions to follow. He would spend the rest of his life in the Atlanta penitentiary until his death in early 2017.

WILLIE AIKENS: The former first baseman for the Kansas City Royals grew up in South Carolina and began his MLB career with the California Angels in 1977. He was traded to the Royals in 1980 and that year Aikens became the first player to ever hit more than one home run in multiple World Series games. Aikens would later reveal that he snorted cocaine before each of those games and his addiction would come to define—and end—his career. He was traded to Toronto in 1984 and that same year he pleaded guilty to attempting to purchase cocaine. The next year, he was released and spent five years in the Mexican Pacific League. His cocaine usage continued and in 1994, Aikens was arrested and convicted for selling crack (plus a weapons charge). He was sentenced to 20 years, which he served in Atlanta until his release in 2008. Today, Aikens is back in Kansas City working for the Royals as a batting coach. He has written a book about his experiences and gives anti-drug presentations at schools.

PHIL DRISCOLL: Driscoll is a Grammy-winning trumpeter and songwriter who made a successful transition from pop to gospel music. He says he found God in 1978 while battling a nasty cocaine habit. Two weeks after his spiritual awakening, Driscoll was arrested for distributing cocaine. He eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was placed on probation. Despite this setback, his gospel career flourished over the next two decades. Driscoll created a music ministry in the early 1980s, which included a television show in 1996. In 2006, the IRS accused him of using his ministry to evade taxes over a four-year period. Driscoll was found guilty of tax evasion and conspiracy and spent less than a year in the Atlanta penitentiary. Upon his release, he resumed his ministry and music career while also tangling with the IRS over money owed.


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