New York prison break: What chance of success do escaped prisoners have?

Two convicted murderers broke out of a New York state prison near the Canadian border this weekend. In recent years, the rate of successful prison escapes has dropped significantly.

Gabe Dickens/Press-Republican/AP
Law enforcement officers combed the streets of Dannemora, NY, searching for two escaped convicts who used power tools to cut through steel pipes at a maximum-security prison near the Canadian border. escaping through a manhole.

In “The Shawshank Redemption,” the movie based on a Stephen King story, Andy Dufresne is serving consecutive life sentences for murders he did not commit. After years in prison, he burrows out of a state penitentiary in rural Maine, making his way across the border to Mexico.

Life doesn’t necessarily reflect art, but in a real-life prison break over the weekend, a pair of convicted murderers – Richard Matt and David Sweat – escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, N.Y., which is in the Adirondacks about 20 miles from the Canadian border.

Messrs. Matt and Sweat had used power tools – possibly stolen from a prison contractor – to make their break from adjoining cells, through concrete and steel, leaving behind clothing piled under their blankets to make it look like they were in bed.

"A search revealed that there was a hole cut out of the back of the cell through which these inmates escaped," acting state corrections commissioner Anthony Annuci told reporters Saturday. "They went onto a catwalk which is about six stories high. We estimate they climbed down and had power tools and were able to get out to this facility through tunnels, cutting away at several spots."

They popped out of a manhole some distance away in what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said was the first escape from the maximum-security portion of the prison since it was built in 1865. All very similar to the way the fictitious Mr. Dufresne escaped.

At this writing, hundreds of local, state, and federal law enforcement officers, including those with the United States Marshals Service and the FBI, are combing the area. Bloodhounds and aerial surveillance are being used in the search.

It’s unclear whether Matt and Sweat had outside help – either as part of their escape or afterwards. Presumably, they had a plan beyond their prison breakout.

The record of prison escapes is mixed.

After he broke free from a security guard at a medical facility in Virginia to which he’d been taken in March, accused bank robber Wossen Assaye was recaptured in Washington. He had taken the guard’s gun and stolen two cars before being apprehended just nine hours later wearing a hospital gown.

But it took 56 years to find Frank Freshwaters this month. He had been convicted of vehicular manslaughter in 1957, escaping from a prison farm in Ohio two years later when he was in his 20s. Neighbors in Florida knew him as a 79-year-old retired truck driver who lived in a trailer on Social Security as “William Harold Cox.”

US Marshals in Ohio had created a ruse to get him to sign papers so they could check his fingerprints, which matched the decades-old arrest, the AP reported.

Such cases of long-sought fugitives are not unheard of, according to the Associated Press. A man who escaped from an Ohio prison in 1992 was arrested late last year at 71 in Indiana, where he lived under an assumed name. And in 2002, a convicted murderer who fled a Tennessee prison in 1970 was arrested in central Ohio after living under an alias there for three decades.

Most escapees are caught, according to official records, although it usually doesn’t take as long as it did to find Mr. Freshwaters. Between January and March of this year, there were 14 prison escapes in Florida. All 14 resulted in recapture, nine of those within 24 hours.

Prison escapes have decreased exponentially, according to statistics from the Bureau of Justice, the Discovery Channel reported in 2014. While the state prison population has ballooned, escapes have continued to go down. In 1993, 14,305 prisoners (out of 780,357) escaped or went AWOL. By 2012, that number dipped to 2,538 escapees out of 1.35 million prisoners.

"We're not seeing a whole lot of escapes," Terry Pelz, a former warden in Texas who now runs a criminal justice consulting service, told the Discovery Channel.

“With staffing cuts, it may seem counterintuitive that escapes have decreased,” according to this report. “Advances in security technology, however, have relegated most prison escapes to Hollywood. There are more cameras, and electric shock or ‘stun’ systems on fences. Better classification of prisoners has also lowered the number of escapes, experts said. Inmates in maximum security are locked down 23 hours a day. Inmates in a medium-security prison are monitored and escorted everywhere they go.”

Also, the deterrent of being caught – an extra sentence, and a move to a more secure prison – is too great for the vast majority of non-violent prisoners in jail for a short time to attempt to leave.

Newsweek cites US Department of Justice data showing 1,599 inmates from state and federal prisons escaped in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, though not all states reported. In 2011, the count was 2,016 and in 2010, it was 1,802.

“Those numbers are down significantly from previous years, even as the prison population has skyrocketed, according to federal data cited in the journal Punishment & Society,” Newsweek reported in May. “In 1981, the rate of escapes was 12.44 for every 1,000 inmates. By 1991, the rate was down to 3.49 and in 2001, it was 0.87, adding up to a 93 percent drop in two decades.”

Meanwhile, the search for Richard Matt and David Sweat – who defied authorities and (so far) the law of averages – continues in upstate New York and now Canada.

Inspecting the pipes through which the men escaped, Governor Cuomo called their break out "an elaborate plot," and described the two as extremely dangerous.

"It's very important that we locate these individuals," he said. "They are dangerous and we want to make sure they don't inflict any more pain and any more harm on New Yorkers."

Matt and Sweat had a sense of humor, it appears. They left behind a yellow post-it with the message “Have a nice day.”

The New York Times reports that the last prison break in the New York State system occurred in 2003, when two convicted murderers broke out of Elmira Correctional Facility. They were caught the next day.

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