ATLANTA – The prisoners in Atlanta's hulking downtown jail had a problem. They wanted to snitch for federal agents, but they didn't know anything worth telling.
Fellow prisoner Marcus Watkins, an armed robber, had the answer.
For a fee, Watkins and his associates on the outside sold them information about other criminals that they could turn around and offer up to federal agents in hopes of shaving years off their prison sentences. They were paying for information, but what they were really trying to buy was freedom.
"I didn't feel as though any laws were being broken," Watkins wrote in a 2008 letter to prosecutors. "I really thought I was helping out law enforcement."
That pay-to-snitch enterprise – documented in thousands of pages of court records, interviews and a stack of Watkins' own letters – remains almost entirely unknown outside Atlanta's towering federal courthouse, where investigators are still trying to determine whether any criminal cases were compromised. It offers a rare glimpse inside a vast and almost always secret part of the federal criminal justice system in which prosecutors routinely use the promise of reduced prison time to reward prisoners who help federal agents build cases against other criminals.