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Prison escapes in America: how common are they and what is the real risk?

After the recent high-profile event escape of convicted murderer from a Pennsylvania prison, some have expressed concerns about the effectiveness of law enforcement and the safety of the community. But how much concern should the public really have?

CBS News dug into data from 26 states, which showed more than 1,100 documented cases of escapes from law enforcement over the past five years. However, experts said many of these incidents are not of the kind high-profile escapes violent criminals like the one that happened in Pennsylvania. In this case, 34 years Danelo Cavalcante was On the run in the Philadelphia suburbs for two weeks before to be captured.

“Escapes are both more common and less frequent than we think,” says Bryce Peterson, a senior research scientist at the Center for Justice Research and Innovation, who specializes in corrections and security.

“Escapes happen every day,” says Peterson. “There are people coming out of minimum security facilities all the time, multiple times a day, from facilities across the country. But escapes like the ones we saw in Pennsylvania – these most sensational escapes – are extremely rare.”

Prison establishments “severely understaffed”

Peterson points to low staffing and salary levels in U.S. detention centers as the primary cause of creating an environment ripe for escapes.

“I think if you ask any correctional authority, they will always say staffing is a problem. That being said, over the last few years this problem has increased tenfold,” says Peterson. “Correctional agencies are severely understaffed right now. They are having difficulty not only recruiting staff, but also retaining them over the long term. I know there are state correctional facilities where their principal competitor for jobs is Walmart. And so if your pay is so low and your job is so unappealing to people that it’s going to be very difficult to find good quality staff who are willing to do their job and stay that job .

Many escape incidents involve convicted persons deemed “low risk” and non-violent. These individuals, called “escapes,” are typically convicted of minor offenses and serve their sentences in minimum security institutions or work release centers.

For example, in the CBS News analysis, Montana had the highest number of reported escapes. But of the 381 incidents documented by the state, all but three of the “escapes” came from unsecured facilities. The problem is largely attributed to its parole system that transfers many parolees to halfway houses so they can find work while serving their sentences.

“I don’t think it’s something people should worry about on a daily basis, even when escapes are happening. Unless you’re near a place where this escape is known,” Peterson says.

Although most documented incidents do not end in violence, escapes can still have devastating consequences. Peterson cited a violent incident in Texas last year when convicted killer Gonzalo Lopez, 46, escaped from a prison bus and killed a family of five during his three-week escape. An internal review of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice found a multitude of security vulnerabilities, including a staff shortage, which allowed Lopez to escape.

In light of these alarming headlines, Peterson cautioned the public against growing complacency, but offered perspective.

“By the time a person is released, they are usually so preoccupied with staying out of detention, finding food, shelter, water, clothing, that sort of thing, that they often don’t engage to violence in the community.” he says. “And that’s what we saw, fortunately, in Pennsylvania.”


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