How Easy Is It to Escape from Prison?


This week, a convicted murderer was arraigned after escaping a prison in Michigan, a fugitive in England said he left jail because the rap music was incessant, and authorities are looking for two inmates who walked away from a minimum-security prison camp in Colorado. And a Texas convict was returned to prison to finish his sentences for kidnapping and attempted cop killing after almost 16 years on the lam, after he climbed three 16-foot, razer wire-topped fence to escape in 1997.

Is escaping from prison really so easy?

Prison experts say no.

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"This is really unusual," said Keramet Reiter, Assistant Professor of Criminology, Law & Society and Law at University of California, Irvine. "It's incredibly rare with a prison that has perimeter security," she said, referring to the Ionia Correctional Facility in Michigan, where escapee Michael David Elliot was jailed in medium security housing.

"The last high profile escape in California was from Alcatraz. And because people kept jumping in the water, that's why they closed it. The next generation of prisons after Alcatraz had more advanced security perimeters."

Even in minimum security prisons and prison camps, inmates only occasionally wander off, Reiter said, at the rate of perhaps once a year. "And then you generally hear about them getting caught, and going back to a prison with a secure perimeter."

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Indeed, prison escapes have decreased exponentially, according to statistics from the Bureau of Justice. While the state prison population has ballooned, escapes have continued to go down. In 1993, 14,305 prisoners (out of 780,357) escaped or went AWOL. By 2012, that number dipped to 2,538 escapees out of 1.35 million prisoners.

"We're not seeing a whole lot of escapes," said Terry Pelz, a former warden in Texas who now runs a criminal justice consulting service.

With staffing cuts, it may seem counterintuitive that escapes have decreased. Advances in security technology, however, have relegated most prison escapes to Hollywood. There are more cameras, and electric shock or "stun" systems on fences.

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