Which Way Did They Go? -- Exploring What We Know (and Don't Know) About Public and Private Prison Escapes in the United States

Richard Culp, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

This paper presents findings of a study of escapes from public and private prisons in the United States during 1997 and 1998. Existing criminal justice system databases provide conflicting and incomplete information about the overall frequency and specific characeristics of prison escapes in the United States. An innovative database of escapes was created using a comprehensive search of national and regional news sources. Validity of news media-derived data was checked by comparison with existing databases. Using a heuristic model to classify the severity of escape incidents, the study focused on a sample of eight-eight (88) of the most serious prison escapes that occurred during the biennium, including seventy-seven (77) public prison escapes and eleven (11) escapes from private facilities. The study examines substantive information derived from news accounts, investigative documents, and interviews with officials regarding these individual escape incidents. Findings discussed include: the frequency of prison escapes in the U.S., the extent of news media coverage of escapes, differences between the public and private sector prisons, state-by-state differences, characteristics of escapees, and the variety of means employed by inmates in escaping from prison.

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Updated 05/20/2006