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How common are prison escapes in the US?

High-profile prison escapes like Danelo Cavalcante's have captured national attention and raised community concerns for safety.
How common are prison escapes in the US?
Posted at 3:55 PM, Sep 16, 2023

On September 13th, law enforcement announced that escaped convict Danelo Cavalcante was captured after two weeks on the run and a manhunt that captured media attention.

Earlier this spring, another inmate at the same facility tried to break out in the same way as Cavalcante but was caught only a few minutes after his escape.

Prison officials added barbed wire to the roof area, but apparently that hadn't stopped Cavalcante.

And a week after Cavalcante's escape in Pennsylvania, another manhunt was launched in Washington, D.C., for a homicide suspect who escaped from a hospital. This string of events has sparked questions about what went wrong and how easy it is to break out of U.S. prisons. The exact number of escapes is hard to quantify and likely undercounted since there is no central federal database.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics, along with various state agencies, also does not differentiate between types of escapes. Most prison 'escapes' are not like the dramatic scenes audiences may be picturing from Hollywood classics like "The Shawshank Redemption" or "The Fugitive." 

Most of the time, the escapes are known as "AWOLs," or "absent without leave." They are inmates who were already outside the facility, like in a transitional program working in the community. If they miss a court date, walk off a worksite for a certain amount of time, or don't report back to their facility in time, they may be counted in the BJS numbers. A number of state agencies also do not differentiate between a prison breakout and an AWOL.

"General escapes are common. I would say that we have probably like 2000 a year in the United States, but many of them are just people that are just walking away from from minimum security jails," said Marc Bullaro, an adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former assistant deputy warden at Rikers Island. "Put yourself in the position of the incarcerated individual. And there are issues that we deal with every day that have to be dealt with immediately, especially family or spousal issues. And I think a lot of them will. Well, that's the reason why they go. I'm talking about the ones who simply just walk out of a minimum security, and then many of them come back."

SEE MORE: Timeline: How murderer Danelo Cavalcante has escaped prison and police

While the numbers may not be closely accurate, the available data suggests an overall trend: prison escapes seem to be declining over the past two decades. 

According to Bullaro, a big reason for that may be changes in technology, like perimeter detectors and motion detection. 

"The security procedures and the technology has gotten so much further advanced that we're able to do more surveillance and more visual of the inmate population with less staff because of the security cameras," he said.

Community awareness can also be a helpful tool for law enforcement. Manhunts that spark national news have more potential witnesses and tips.

One study from 2005 modeled how likely escapees were to be caught after being featured on America's Most Wanted. 

The study found the risk of apprehension was seven times as great, and the manhunt was likely to be shortened as well. But the only "escapees" that make the headlines are the rare cases with higher-risk convicts, like Cavalcante, who was convicted of murder and reported to be armed.

Bryce Peterson, also an adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an expert on prison escapes, told Scripps News, "In the research that I've done and that the others have done, the recapture rate, as you will, the number of people that are recaptured or the proportion of people [that have been] recaptured, is well above 90%, probably pretty close to 100%. For those few cases where people are not recaptured, oftentimes it's because they're not posing a serious risk and there's not a national manhunt like what we call Pennsylvania."

He added, "There's no reason to just be panicked about escapes of the general thing. So escapes are not happening very often."

Escaping from prison is exceedingly difficult, and evading capture is even more so. The recent high-profile incidents are a reminder that community vigilance can be helpful in cases of dangerous manhunts. But these cases are thankfully more rare than they might seem.

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