Can Prisons Predict Which Inmates Will Try to Escape?

And what can they do to prevent it?
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And what can they do to prevent it?
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. (Photo: vgm8383/Flickr)

Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. (Photo: vgm8383/Flickr)

When considered in relation to the sheer size of the incarcerated population of the United States, prison escapes are rare and on the decline—and most escaped convicts are quickly caught. Still, jailbreak stories are always bound to make the news, tapping into, as they do, our twin emotions of fear and adventure.

And so a search of the news over the last month brings us accounts of the 30 teenagers who ran from a juvenile detention facility in Tennessee after crawling under a fence, the convicted high-school shooter and his friends who scaled the fence of an Ohio prison during “rec time,” and the convicted killer whom cops spotted from a plane as he jumped onto a moving freight train after escaping from a prison in Texas (which he also escaped by scaling the fence). Then there was the guy in Montana who crawled into an air duct in an attempt to break out, but turned himself in when the prison was put on a noisy middle-of-the-night lockdown, “so the rest of these guys can get some sleep.”

The women who escaped (or tried to) "tended to be younger, tended to have longer sentences, and generally experienced more adjustment problems than non-escapees."

Christopher Beam broke down the categories of frequent prison-escape methods a few years ago in a list for Slate: cutting holes in the roof, impersonating someone other than an inmate and walking out, brute force, getting help from the outside, and, yes, very slowly digging a tunnel from a cell (which he calls “The Shawshank-esque redemption”). The methods may differ, but the motive, of course, is always the same.

To prevent escapes, prison administrators can increase the facility’s security, decrease the amount of unstructured time outside, staff up on guards, and maybe even try to manipulate prison architecture to discourage risky behavior among inmates. But can anyone predict which prisoners will be most likely to attempt an escape?

Researchers have certainly tried. Criminal psychologists have used psychological assessments and criminal-history evaluations of prisoners as “escape predictors,” with varying levels of success, over previous decades.

Iowa State University researchers compared the female felons in an Iowa prison who had escaped, and those who hadn’t, from 1960 to 1974. In the study, published in Criminal Justice and Behavior back in 1977, they found that the women who escaped (or tried to) “tended to be younger, tended to have longer sentences, and generally experienced more adjustment problems which resulted in juvenile imprisonment and/or psychiatric hospitalization than non-escapees. ... Moreover, escapees were more likely than non-escapees to characterize themselves as impulsive, manipulative, and active.”

This last point, along with various other psychological evaluations, led the authors of this particular study to conclude, “Additionally, these findings suggested the issue of whether escape-prone prisoners were societally misplaced in a correctional institution when a mental health facility might have been more appropriate.” They also ended the article with the caveat that their study only evaluated the very personal factors of these “escapees,” and not the environmental or situational factors in the prisons where they were incarcerated that may have led up to their breaking out.

A similar type of study, which focused on male prisoners in Georgia for the Criminal Justice Review in 1983, did look at factors within the prisons as well as within the lives and personalities of the felons who escaped. The researchers found that the aspect of a prison that correlated most strongly with escapes was the “youthfulness” (the average age) of the prison population as a whole.

The second most important factor was the ratio of the number of “treatment personnel” (like teachers, case workers, and psychologists) to the prison staff at large. In tough economic times, the authors wrote (back in 1983, remember), that it was tempting for policymakers to cut costs in this area, but that doing so would be a mistake:

Although the problem of inadequate resources, including treatment personnel, partially explains high rates of inmate recidivism, this same condition also undermines the effectiveness of prisons in achieving the incapacitation ideal. Increasing the level of prison personnel is costly and in some cases altogether unrealistic. Increasing the ratio of treatment to custodial personnel, however, is economically feasible.

In other words, everyone could agree that they didn’t want prisoners to escape—they wanted them to stay, and to have the opportunity for reform and education while they’re there. This last point was echoed decades later by Richard F. Culp, who was a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Culp began a 2005 article for The Prison Journal this way:

If there were such a thing as first principles in the field of corrections, the idea that prisons ought to prevent inmates from escaping would certainly qualify for the list. Although consensus may be lacking on the primary end goal of imprisonment, be it punishment, deterrence, rehabilitation, or simply incapacitation, the means to the end include control over an inmate’s whereabouts.

Culp gathered information on prison escapes throughout the country from 1988 to 1998—to the extent that such data is kept on the national level—and then media reports for the last two years of that range. He concluded that the race and gender of the felons did not seem to be a factor in determining their likelihood of attempting an escape, but that their age did. Younger inmates were more likely to try to break out than older ones. In addition, those inmates with longer sentences, who had been convicted of more violent crimes, were also more likely to attempt an escape.

Culp also tallied the various methods of escape, which ranged from hiding in delivery trucks, to the old bed-sheet rope trick, to actually running away during a prison-escape role-playing exercise for a dog team training exercise. But the most frequent method of escape, by far? Scaling, cutting, or ducking the prison yard fence.