Prison Escapes on the Decline

ByMaria F. Durand

Feb. 1, 2001 -- With so many high-profile prison escapes recently it might seem that inmates are fleeing like never before.

First the "Texas Seven" broke out of a maximum security prison, and now six of them — one has since committed suicide — are charged with killing a police officer while robbing a sporting goods store.

Then last month, two Oklahoma inmates escaped from another maximum security prison, pulling toilets from cell walls and escaping through a hidden maintenance tunnel and a vent.

This week, six inmates in Alabama, using a broom to sneak under a fence, managed to bypass correctional officers and high-tech security systems to make their way out of the medium security St. Clair Correctional Facility.

Despite these three highly publicized escapes, experts say prison breakouts are less common today than they were 10 years ago.

"Escapes are going down," said Camille G. Camp, co-president of the Criminal Justice Institute, which has been publishing the Corrections Yearbook on criminal statistics since 1981. "The reason we've heard about all these recent outbreaks lately is that you'll have something dramatic, sensational."

In 1990, 2,583 inmates nationwide escaped from minimum, medium and maximum security prisons, according to CJI. That number does not includes "walkaways," inmates who leave work programs or don't return after furlough programs.

Escapes hit a 10-year-high in 1991, with 2,660, and hit a recent low in 1998 at 660. In 1999, 1,047 walked away from incarceration.

Escapes from high-security prisons included within the survey declined, as did the larger figure. In 1990, 292 prisoners escaped from high-security facilities, like the ones in Texas and Oklahoma, and 115 escaped in 1999, according to CJI. The high year for escapes was 1992, with 318.

Architecture, Technology Help

Corrections experts say the main reason fewer inmates are escaping is that the nation has recently built so many new facilities to house the nation's booming prison population.

"These are new facilities that are state-of-the-art, with the technology that reduces some of your manpower requirements," said James Turpin, spokesman for the American Correctional Association, an industry group. "They [prisons] tend to be more secure because of technology."

However, analysts see reason to worry.

While the Texas and Oklahoma cases involved sophisticated escape plans, more often prisoners flee on the spur of the moment when a window of opportunity opens.

"It's when they have that five-second space when something happens or someone is not looking that they take off," Camp said. "There are not many forced escapes."

And those kinds of escapes are stopped by having more guards, the experts say.

Camp said one predictor of escapes in a prison system is the ratio of officers to prisoners. The average in state and federal prisons is one officer per 5.6 prisoners.

In Alabama, where the six inmates escaped Tuesday, the officer to inmate ratio is one to 9.4 prisoners, according to Camp's numbers.

Law enforcement officials said the escapees used a broom handle to slither under a 5,000-volt electrified fence, and somehow made their way around two other razor-wire fences at the St. Clair Correctional Facility, north of Birmingham.

They escaped some time early Tuesday evening, and their absence went unnoticed during the 8 p.m. head count.

More Guards Needed, Experts Say

Turpin agreed technology isn't enough.

"It still doesn't remove fact that you need people and you need qualified well-compensated people," he said.

Prison have had trouble attracting prison guards to a dangerous job where starting pay is often below $20,000 per year, and turnover nationally is about 25 percent per year. Utah, has 13 prisoners for every guard, the highest ratio in the country.

After the escape of the "Texas Seven," a report by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice found the breakout was the result of a failure in the correctional system and could have been prevented had prison staff not made a series of mistakes.

Correctional officers at the Connally Unit of the state prison near Kenedy, Texas, say the mistakes happened because they were overworked and have begun to ask the state Legislature for better pay and better working conditions.

Throughout Texas, correctional officers say conditions are much the same.

"Because of staff shortage it was my hardest summer," said Sherryion Lane, a prison guard who has worked at Thomas Goree Unit in Huntsville Texas, for 17 years. "We were so short that I had work 17-hour days every other day. It is just not humanly possible to keep the state of alertness is that we need to do our job."

"Considering what they are fighting against, they are doing a good job of preventing people from getting out," Camp said.

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