The warden at the troubled Atlanta federal penitentiary has suddenly retired, just days after a third inmate was caught escaping, according to the union that represents correctional officers.
Vance Bryant, president of the union, said former warden Darlene Drew had been off all week but came in on Thursday to tell the staff that she was bringing “her 32 years (with the federal Bureau of Prisons) to an end.” Her departure became effective Saturday.
RELATED: Drugs, booze and Mexican takeout
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported extensively on inmates coming and going from the minimum-security prison camp adjacent to the federal penitentiary. In recent weeks, there have been several arrests related to the escapes.
The AJC first learned of Drew’s departure from an inmate who said the warden had left the post she had held for 4 ½ years. The federal Bureau of Prisons did not respond to email requests for confirmation.
Bryant, who provided confirmation, said Drew’s retirement was expected, given the problems at the prison, but at the same time was a surprise.
“It was expected (because) we had heard about the (inmate) getting caught and all the other stuff going on,” Bryant said Saturday. “But in my time (with the Bureau of Prisons), when a warden announced retirement, it’s never this soon.”
Drew could not be reached for comment on Saturday.
Since earlier this year, the federal prison in southeast Atlanta has suffered from bad publicity. Court documents paint a portrait of a facility where inmates come and go with impunity. Some have been leaving the camp to meet women, others go to restaurants or to pick up contraband like liquor, cell phones and drugs to be sold to other prisoners.
According to a federal criminal complaint filed in February, inmates from the low-security prison have been slipping through holes cut in the chain link fence that separate the institution from neighboring business, homes and apartment complexes. The prisoners, all drug offenders, have returned to the prison camp.
One prisoner described for The AJC 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. They also picked up cellphones, which they could use to continue their illegal activities from inside prison.
Court records have provided similar accounts of federal prisoners routinely coming and going from the prison camp on McDonough Boulevard.
FBI agents and Atlanta police officers, who had set up surveillance at the fence made their first arrest on Feb. 3 when Justin Stinson was attempting to return to the prison camp with 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. He pleaded guilty to escape April 20, telling a federal judge he did it because he was addicted to nicotine and wanted the cigarettes. Stinson will be sentenced next month.
Before he was charged with escape, Stinson was scheduled to be released from prison at the end of next year but he is now facing the possibility of five more years.
Inmate taxi service
A few weeks later, another inmate and his fiancée were arrested after she picked him up just outside the front entrance to the prison.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffry Davis said in court that Deldrick Jackson and Kelly Bass had been running a shuttle service for other inmates. But on April 13 Jackson slipped away from the prison for personal reasons. Otherwise, Davis said, Jackson and Bass, a Stone Mountain mother of three, had been making money charging inmates for rides to nearby restaurants, hotels and residences.
Jackson, already serving 10 years and 10 months for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and money laundering, is now charged with escape and conspiracy to escape. He is scheduled to be in court on Tuesday to change his not guilty plea to guilty.
Bass remains is free on bond. She pleaded not guilty.
Then on Monday, a third inmate was caught in some woods outside the prison.
Fernando Settles, who is serving 20 years for “conspiratorial and substantive drug trafficking,” was caught with a cellphone and an empty duffel bag. He has not officially entered a plea. He remains in custody.
Bryant, the union president, said the prison is short-staffed and that contributes to the problem. But they are now allowed to hire.
He said Drew did not explain or take questions after she announced her retirement.
“After she told us, she walked down form the podium,” Bryant said. “We felt it was time for a leadership change.”