Inmate Justin Stinson told a federal judge it was his nicotine addiction — specifically cigarettes — that was behind his decision to escape briefly from the U.S. Penitentiary prison camp in southeast Atlanta.
“I’ve been smoking since I was 10,” said Stinson, who is already serving a sentence for possession of a firearm by a felon.
That habit, Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell said, could cost Stinson another five years in prison and a $250,000 fine should he decide to give the 35-year-old inmate the maximum punishment for escape. Stinson had been scheduled for release on Dec. 7, 2018 — until he was caught outside the minimum-security prison camp’s chain-link fence on Feb. 3.
Stinson stood before Pannell on Thursday to plead guilty to an escape charge. It marked a change of strategy for Stinson, who in February had pleaded not guilty. Defendants sometimes plead guilty rather than go to trial because they fear the likelihood of conviction and a harsher sentence.
Atlanta police officers and FBI agents nabbed Stinson moments after he slid through a hole in one fence, then climbed an outer fence to fetch a duffel bag containing a cellphone, scissors, two 1.75 liters of Jose Cuervo tequila, two cartons of Newport cigarettes, four boxes of Black and Mild cigars, and food items.
Stinson said in court that he had not expected liquor to be in the bag.
“It was just more … about a cigarette habit,” Stinson told Pannell. “I could be back … (at prison camp living quarters) in five minutes. I didn’t know liquor would be in there. I thought it was a cigar, cigarette and food run.”
Pannell wanted to be clear that Stinson had always planned to come back inside the fence line.
“You came back? It’s not like you escaped and went to South America,” Pannell said.
“I would never have done that,” Stinson answered.
With Stinson’s arrest earlier this year, the public learned that it was routine for inmates to come and go from the prison camp on McDonough Boulevard in the middle of businesses, homes and apartments.
One prisoner described for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution an extensive and elaborate operation that enabled inmates to make multiple trips through holes they cut in the fence to pick up drugs, alcohol, takeout from nearby restaurants and food for grilling. Plus, they could pick up cellphones, which they could use to continue their illegal activities from inside prison. All those items are contraband and can bring a high price when sold on the inmate black market.
The inmate, who asked for anonymity out of fear of retribution from other prisoners and guards, said it is routine to have only one, maybe two, officers assigned to watch 500 inmates housed in eight buildings. And the president of the union that represents correctional officers at the penitentiary said the same.
Inmate taxi service
Last week another inmate and his fiancée were arrested after she picked him up just outside the front entrance to the prison in southeast Atlanta.
According to charges, inmate Deldrick Jackson and Kelly Bass, a Stone Mountain mother of three, were operating a taxi service for inmates housed at the camp. They were allegedly using a telephone app to get payment from federal prisoners who used their services.
FBI agent James Hosty wrote in a criminal complaint that Jackson, already serving 10 years and 10 months for cocaine distribution and money laundering conspiracy, and Bass provided “inmates who have escaped with transportation to restaurants, hotels or residences for a fee (often paid via the Square Cash app).”
The FBI allegedly has surveillance of Bass picking up inmates in her silver Acura SUV and driving them to a nearby motel.
Escaping for years
The Atlanta police were the first to come up on inmates outside the prison fence in early 2013. Hosty wrote in an affidavit in Stinson’s case that more than four years ago an officer came upon a car parked near the fence. The people inside were wearing ski masks and gray jumpsuits, according to the affidavit.
The officer found inside the car “a large quantity of bottled alcohol, 24 cellphones and two loaded handguns.”
Then on Jan. 18 of this year, Atlanta Police Department surveillance cameras recorded more inmates passing through the holes in the fence to retrieve large bags.
The FBI joined the surveillance, and on Feb. 3 around 9:20 p.m., Stinson went through a hole in one prison fence and then climbed a second fence to reach New Town Circle.
No one has explained yet what transpired in the four years between the latest incident and the one in early 2013.
But Winifred Hemphill, the president of South-View Cemetery, which abuts the prison property, said prison officials knew inmates were leaving because she had repeatedly called to report them coming through the woods and onto the sprawling burial grounds to meet women.
The Bureau of Prisons has not responded to several emails sent since February seeking comment.
Stinson told the judge he decided to leave the prison temporarily after another inmate, “in the smoking area,” told him there was a way to get cigarettes. Stinson said cigarettes aren’t sold at the prison commissary, but they are readily available through the inmates’ underground network.
Stinson told Pannell it was easy to get through a hole cut in a fence about 20 yards from his assigned living quarters and then over a perimeter fence about 75 yards away.
He will be sentenced on June 28, after the judge receives a pre-sentencing report that he’ll use to decide whether Stinson should get the maximum punishment or less.