Monday, October 01, 2007

Another escape; three in a week!

Perhaps it's a coincidence, but law enforcement in Texas at all levels, federal, state, and local, saw prisoners escape in Texas last week, most recently from a federal prison in Crystal City.

The last seven days witnessed escapes from TDCJ by two murderers (since recaptured) where a guard was murdered, an escape by three men from the Nacogdoches County Jail (with apparent help from a guard - two have been recaptured), and now a federal inmate serving time for carjacking.

Prisoners are like rebellious teenagers in this sense - they've got lots of time to sit around and think up ways to get into trouble, if they're so inclined. So it's not that surprising that occasionally someone figures out how to take advantage of a location-specific opportunity (or a corrupt guard) and make a getaway, no matter how many precautions are taken - as TDCJ CO Susan Canfield's death reminds us, it only takes one mistake for lightning to strike.

Even so, three escapes in a week, from every level of law enforcement, should raise eyebrows. The feds have the same problem as adult prisons and small-town county jails. What do they have in common? What lessons can be learned from these incidents that might improve safety in the future?

One theory: Most Texas corrections facilities today are understaffed; even though crime is down, prison and jail populations are bursting at the seams. Meanwhile, most incarcerated offenders committed non-violent crimes, but their presence in prisons and jails leaves thin resources for guarding more dangerous prisoners, like those involved in these escapes.

A past campaign client of mine, former state Rep. Ray Allen, likes to say we should reserve incarceration for those whom we're afraid of, not those at whom we're only angry. These escapees were all from the class of offenders of whom society should be afraid. Shifting more resources toward their supervision might make society safer than incarcerating many people who don't pose the same danger.

RELATED: The Houston Chronicle has an interesting historical article this morning by Mike Tolson on the history of Texas prison escapes, including the tale of Raymond Hamilton, a former Depression-era running partner of Bonnie and Clyde who escaped from Texas death row on the same day John Dillinger was killed in Chicago.

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