The murky math of counting prison escapes

Prison walls and lookout tower
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With all the fearmongering after two murderers' escape from a maximum-security prison north of Albany and the search now in its seventh day, many New Yorkers are feeling anxious about their chances of running into an escaped felon in a dark alley.

"New York prison break just one of 2,000 per year," trumpeted a Washington Post headline, one of many news outlets to jump on the news and repeat claims that the disappearance of murderers like Richard Matt and David Sweat's escape from the upstate penitentiary was a drop in the prison break bucket.

The thought of 2,000 hardened criminals escaping from prison every year is totally terrifying. And pretty much not true.

The trouble is that the number comes from a metric maintained by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, a number-crunching arm of the Department of Justice, that includes everything from a Hollywood-style prison break from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora to someone walking off a worksite at a transitional program. On its website, the BJS offers a click-through database that compiles various statistics such as prison population, incarcerations and releases. The "releases" category includes a few types, including "AWOL/Escape."

A less accessible data set is the National Prisoner Survey, administered annually by the BJS and maintained online by the National Archive of Criminal Justice Data, part of the University of Michigan. By differentiating escapes and AWOLs, the NPS shows a vastly different picture of trends in national and local prison breaks.

A spokesperson for the BJS said that "escapes" is a count of inmates who disappeared while physically within the boundaries of a facility, which would include the convicts in New York. An "AWOL," on the other hand, is an inmate who was already outside the boundaries of a facility when they disappeared, such as an inmate on a work-release detail. Lumping the two together is misleading, said Linda Foglia, a spokesperson for the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision

"If you're looking for inmates that breach security and left the secure confinement of a correctional facility that has a wall, or has a fencing system with razor wire, it is wrong to look at these statistics," said Foglia. "These are people who may have been in a hospital bed, or in a transportation vehicle and tried to open the door."

Most of the inmates who are included in the lumped escape/AWOL figure are in minimum security or transitional programs that are meant to reintroduce prisoners to the community, said Foglia. They might be out working in the community for a week, but if they come back late they are counted in the BJS numbers. Escapes from actual prisons are rare, and almost no one escapes from the state's maximum security prisons.

"These are nonviolent inmates within an arm's reach of being paroled," she said.

To make matters even cloudier, some states don't separate out escapes and AWOLs in their reports at all. According to the BJS, the state of Alabama had more than 600 escapes in 2013. That number is entirely meaningless, said Robert Horton, public information officer for the Alabama Department of Corrections.

"Could you imagine having 687 escapes from a prison facility?" he said. "The majority of that number are people in community corrections, which is a program that provides an alternative to serve sentences without having to be incarcerated in a prison."

Like in New York, those are people who are supervised in community corrections and work programs. If they don't report in on time or walk off a worksite for over two hours, they're registered as an escape as a matter of department policy, said Horton. Out of the reported escapes in 2013, only three left a community work center, 16 walked off a work site, and one actually escaped from a secured facility. The rest just failed to check in or meet some other requirement for their sentences.

States have different reporting standards, so comparing between states is nearly impossible, said Horton.

In addition, while many news reports point out that prisoner's escapes have dropped in the past decade, they underestimate the extent of the drop by using gross numbers rather than rates. As the number of prisoners nationwide increased the rate of escaped prisoners has continued to decrease, thanks largely to newer and modern prisons that help keep prisoners in.

Nationally, the number of escapes from prison has dropped more than half in the past 15 years, to a rate of 10.5 escapes per 10,000 prisoners in 2013.