The pressures at the Atlanta pen are like those in no other prison. A lot of my friends won’t touch banks, post offices, anything federal, because they’re afraid of being sent there. A person can get murdered just having an argument. Not because somebody wants to murder, but because of the pressures, the boredom. Month after month, year after year, it starts grating away. You just go berserk. I’ll never go back to Atlanta.
—Ed Lonis, a five-time loser and veteran of 4½ years in that U.S. penitentiary
In the past 18 months there have been nine murders inside the prison on Atlanta’s southeast side: nine apparently unconnected acts of homicide motivated by homosexual jealousy, mob revenge, personal feuding. Each was a fresh rebuke to the notion of “maximum security.” After the eighth slaying, a contract hit on a Mafia informant, U.S. Rep. Wyche Fowler of Georgia condemned the slaughter as an “alarming commentary on the Bureau of Prisons’ ability to protect human life within the penitentiary.” He demanded an investigation. Unfortunately, the presence of federal investigators did nothing to stanch the bloodshed inside the walls. On the very day the five-man team began its work, the prison’s ninth victim was found stabbed to death in a stairwell. He was Dominique Orsini, a convicted drug importer suspected of being a key figure in the notorious “French Connection” narcotics case. In a prison population of some 2,200 inmates, maintained by a staff of 477 guards and administrators, only one of the killings has led to a conviction.
Why Atlanta? The problem stems in part from the nature of the facility itself: a huge, outmoded 76-year-old compound that is overcrowded by at least 600 inmates. The prisoners, moreover, are among the nation’s hardest cases; two-thirds have been arrested at least seven times and more than half are in for 10 years or more. Nearly one in three has been convicted of bank robbery. Even by penitentiary standards, says Dr. Jack Hanberry, a former prison chaplain who took over as warden last July, “we have a high concentration of violent, uncaring people. Instead of asking why there are murders in prison, I would ask why people kill each other outside. They don’t change just because they’re committed to an institution. They still have the same problems, and here they can’t escape their situation.”
Contributing to the endemic violence is the illicit produce of the penitentiary’s machine shop. There inmates have easy access to grinders, lathes and shearpresses designed for the manufacture of mail carts and traffic signs—but available to fashion the crude weapons used in eight of the killings. Bureau investigators also believe the prison is understaffed. Hanberry insists, “If a fellow wants to do his time and be left alone, he can be,” but the warden also admits the difficulty of preventing violence. “A person can be killed with bare hands, a baseball bat, a fist or a bar of soap in a sock,” he says. “Homemade knives are silent and faster, and there are many men working in the shop every day. We don’t have a staff member to watch each inmate’s every move. As much as is humanly possible, we are trying to prevent weapons from being made.”
Such measures do not reach the heart of the crisis: incarceration itself. “On the outside,” says one former inmate, “you have an argument and walk away from the other person. You see him a month or so later and you say, ‘That’s all forgotten.’ But in the pen there’s no way to get away. Things have to be settled then and there.” Ed Lonis, 47, a habitual criminal, agrees. “There’s no escape from a feud in Atlanta,” he says. “You’re going to be confronted by it daily. All you can do is go to the authorities and ask for a transfer, and that’s a no-no, verboten. It affects your reputation.” The urge to violence, he says, is bred by “institutional trauma—a daily existence so boring and so lacking in empathy that any confrontation releases all kinds of frustrations. All arguments are magnified into a murderous state. Sometimes I really wanted to hurt people. If I stopped and thought about it, there was no reason except for a little loss of face or something I could laugh off on the outside.”
Ominously, a reputation as a killer is of value in prison. “Murderers are very respected,” says Lonis. “They’re not thought of as transgressors—just as people not to fool with.” At 19, Lonis himself tried to kill a fellow prisoner who made an unwelcome sexual overture. “I stuck a knife into him,” Lonis says. “The man didn’t die, but no one else approached me after that.” Killers in prison are protected not only by the inmates’ code of silence, claims Lonis (“You mind your own business,” he says), but by the guards’ instinct for self-preservation. “Regardless of what you’ve heard, the guards don’t interfere in a murder,” he insists. “They’re afraid of getting stuck themselves. Anyway, how are they going to deter a killer who’s got 24 hours a day to plot it out? The guards can’t protect the inmates—it’s as simple as that. The Mafia takes a young convict and says, ‘Listen, I got word from the outside that this guy needs to be taken care of. If you do it, we’ll make sure no one testifies against you and we’ll see that your wife gets $10,000, $20,000.’ It’s a very tempting little situation.”
Despite the obstacles, Atlanta prison officials are pushing ahead with ways to reduce the carnage. Inmates will be searched more frequently, additional metal detectors will be installed, and a pass system will monitor prisoners’ movements around the compound. Ninety-three potential troublemakers have been transferred to other institutions. In the long run, however, most observers agree, stringent security can only increase the frustrations that breed prison violence.
Ultimately, the Bureau of Prisons investigators concluded, Atlanta’s outdated physical plant makes it “extremely difficult for staff to adequately supervise the inmate population and provide for their safety.” Their recommendation is that “the Atlanta Penitentiary be closed as soon as adequate and modern facilities are authorized and constructed.” But that won’t happen soon. “This institution,” concedes Warden Hanberry, “is large and hard to supervise. Present-day institutions are small—not more than 500 inmates in single cells. Four and a half institutions would be needed to replace this one, and other prisons should probably close before ours.”
Meanwhile the threat of continued bloodshed hangs over Atlanta. “We are still a maximum security institution,” the warden says, “and we’re still in the business of housing prisoners, and some of them are going to be dangerous.”