The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 10, 2015

Should we be worried about prison escapes? No.

June 10, 2015

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Thanks to the recent escape by two dangerous inmates from New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility, fascination with ingenious, daring tales of escape— such as (the fictional) The Shawshank Redemption—is at a renewed high. These brazen “prison breaks” often pique public curiosity and can lead to panic and fear among individuals in the community where the escape occurred.

Given their histories, it is not unlikely that Clinton escapees Richard Matt and David Sweat would use violence to help them avoid recapture. But, despite these present fears, a larger question remains: should prison escapes generally be a cause for concern? There are four reasons why the answer is no.

First, escapes are occurring less and less frequently. When major events like the escape from Clinton are covered widely in the news, it is easy for people to think that these events are recent or growing problems (remember bath salts, anyone?). However, the number and rate of escapes, like crime generally, have substantially decreased over the past 30 years.

In New York, for example, the number of escapes per year dropped from nearly 30 to fewer than 2 between 1983 and 2003. Another source of national data indicates that the rate of escape dropped from nearly 13 per 1,000 inmates in 1981 to less than one in 2001. These trends also appear to be holding in more recent years.

Second, escapees rarely use violence during their escape. Even when inmates do manage to break out of prison, they do not often engage in violence. Violence occurs in fewer than 20 percent of escapes, and most of this violence is relatively minor (e.g., pushing or shoving) and is directed toward correctional officers and other prison staff. Escapees seldom use violence against members of the public.

Third, escapes like the one from Clinton are extremely rare. Though escapes with dangerous inmates and intricate plans make for captivating news stories, the majority of escapes are the result of inmates simply walking away from a minimum security prisons or failing to return from their work release assignment or from a furlough. These types of escapes usually involve inmates with nonviolent, relatively minor criminal histories who are serving short sentences or who are nearing their release. In other words, most escapees are not particularly dangerous and seem to escape simply because they have the opportunity to do so.

Fourth, even when dangerous inmates manage to escape, they are almost always caught. As many as 90 percent of all escapees are eventually recaptured. However, this estimate includes inmates who “walked away” from minimum security facilities. Those who escape from higher-security facilities and those with lengthy or dangerous criminal histories are even more likely to be caught. That’s because law enforcement and correctional officials looking for escapees are willing to spend a lot more time and resources to locate the dangerous ones. Inmates who walk away from minimum security facilities are often not seen as a threat to the public and are not pursued as intensely. 

Moreover, the stories of high-profile escapes are more likely to be reported in national news outlets, which in turn increases public scrutiny, vigilance, and investigative help. Increased public awareness makes it difficult for escapees to find the essentials they need to stay on the lam—food, shelter, and clothing. It is very difficult for dangerous, high-profile escapees to successfully remain out of custody for a long period of time.

There is the potential for danger any time an individual has escaped from prison and is motivated to stay out of custody. The escapees from Clinton are no exception. Matt and Sweat are convicted murders and they seem particularly motivated to remain out of custody given the complexity and execution of their plan.

But for the great majority of escapes, members of the public do not need to worry about their safety. More often than not, they will not even be aware of escapes happening around them. 

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

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