Prison break: 29 inmates escape federal lockups in 18 months

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FILE - In this Aug. 28, 2020, file photo, a no trespassing sign is displayed outside the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind. Over the past 18 months, 29 prisoners have escaped from federal lockups across the U.S. - and nearly half still have not been caught. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)

WASHINGTON – Over the past 18 months, 29 prisoners have escaped from federal lockups across the U.S. — and nearly half still have not been caught. At some of the institutions, doors are left unlocked, security cameras are broken and officials sometimes don’t notice an inmate is missing for hours.

At one Texas lockup, security is so lax that local law enforcement officials privately joke about its seemingly “open-door policy.”

Prisoners have broken out at lockups in nearly every region of the country. Twelve of the inmates who escaped in 2020 — from prisons in Florida, California, Louisiana, Texas and Colorado — remain at large. Two others who escaped since January this year have also not yet been caught. Their crimes include racketeering, wire fraud, bank robbery, possession of methamphetamine and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and other drugs.

All of the escapes happened at minimum-security federal prison camps, some of which don’t even have fences, and house inmates the Bureau of Prisons considers to be the lowest security risk.

“Anybody can escape from any camp any minute of any day,” said Jack Donson, a prison consultant and former case manager at a federal prison in Otisville, New York. “They’re not secure facilities. They have no fence, no metal detectors.”

The numbers raise serious concerns that the agency long besieged by chronic mismanagement, misconduct and a severe staffing crisis is failing at performing its most basic function: keeping prisoners in prison. While a Justice Department budget report submitted to Congress said the Bureau of Prisons had no escapes from secure facilities, it does not count those who escape from minimum-security prisons or camps.

Federal officials often refer to them as “walk-aways,” though it is still an escape from federal prison under the law and law enforcement officials say there is still a risk to the community when an inmate absconds.

Federal prison camps were originally designed with low security to make operations easier and to allow inmates tasked with performing work at the prison, like landscaping and maintenance, to avoid repeatedly checking in and out of a main prison facility. But the lax security has now not only opened a gateway for contraband but is also the source of most of the prison system’s escapes.