Are inmate escapes on the rise? Not necessarily

U.S.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice posted photos and videos Sunday of law enforcement on horseback searching for Gonzalo Lopez near Centerville in Leon County. Lopez broke out of prison Friday and is wanted on capital murder charges. (Photo: TX Dept. of Criminal Justice)

(NewsNation) — Despite a recent series of high-profile inmate escapes, the made-for-TV-style breakouts represent just a small percentage of escapes nationwide, and the scope of the problem is cloudy the deeper you look.

The most serious cases become big news, as was the case in Texas, when Gonzalo Lopez escaped a prisoner transport bus by removing his restraints and stabbing the driver. He later killed five people, including children, at a home in Leon County, authorities say, before he was killed in Jourdantown last week by police.

Also, Alabama inmate Casey White and the jail guard who helped him escape made headlines in May. That escape launched an 11-day manhunt that ended with a car chase three states away in Indiana.

Most recently, five prisoners escaped from a jail in Franklin Furnace, Ohio, last week. Four inmates were subsequently captured, while one remains on the run.

It’s hard to view the escapes as equivalent. Lauderdale County, Alabama, Sheriff Rick Singleton, who handled the Casey White escape, contrasted that to the Ohio jailbreak earlier this week.

“I think (escapes have) always been happening,” Singleton said. “In our case, the fact that we had an inmate who was awaiting trial for capital murder made it somewhat unique. The escape in Ohio with low-level drug offenders, based on my experience, they are probably there somewhere close. They’re not going to skip out across the country like ours did.”

Generally, escapes from minimum-security facilities, residential reentry centers, violations of bail, failures to return from furlough and military AWOLs are all counted in federal escapee data.

“Most of these guys are just low-hanging fruit,” said Tulane University law professor Robert Allen. “These are not mastermind criminals. These are not Bonnie and Clyde and (John) Dillinger and all these other guys (like) Al Capone. These guys literally just walk off of a facility.”

Often, law enforcement catches those inmates, who Allen said usually look for a place to hide, not potential victims to harm.

No escapes should be the standard, but the degree of potential danger does vary, Allen said.

“If I got you on five counts of armed robbery and there was a shooting involved and you escape and then come to find out, you have a police officer’s weapon … I’m going to handle you a lot differently than I would a low-level drug offender,” he said.

While some cases make headlines, data surrounding prison and jail escapes throughout the U.S. is spotty.

Although recent high-profile escapes have happened in quick succession, existing federal data published last year shows that just 0.4% of all federal prisoners and 0.3% of state prisoners in the U.S. escaped from custody in 2016, the most up-to-date data available.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) told NewsNation in a May 16 email that there were no escapes from secure facilities in 2021 or to date in 2022.  

There were, however, 120 incidents classified as escapes from non-secure facilities in 2021, and 52 as of May 12, 2022, according to the BOP. That data includes failure to appear ad furlough transfers and walkways, mostly from work sites.

The definition and tracking of escapes vary by agency, too.

In New York, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision defines an escape as “any unauthorized departure from confinement or custody by an incarcerated individual,” according to department spokesman Thomas Mailey.

“This can occur from a facility, an outside work detail, a vehicle while in transit, or from an outside hospital,” Mailey said in an email.

When an escape happens, departments don’t wait to review lagging national data before making changes. Lauderdale County already has reassigned inmate transportation duties from jail staff to the sheriff’s office in light of the assistance Casey White received from jail guard Vicky White.

“That’s probably the major change we made,” Singleton said. “That’s something that’s never been an issue.”

People should remain vigilant, but the past months’ prison escapes don’t warrant heightened public anxiety, Allen said.

“Don’t change your pattern,” he said. “Don’t change your life. Don’t look around every corner.”

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