WASHINGTON — More than 240 inmates have slipped away from federal custody in the past three years while traveling to halfway houses, including several who committed bank robberies and a carjacking while on the lam, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Some of the inmates who absconded from 2012 through 2014 include were reported by prison officials to have histories of violence and misconduct while in prison, the records show.
The federal Bureau of Prisons each year permits thousands of inmates it considers low risk to serve the final months of their sentences at halfway houses where counseling, job placement and other services are offered. These inmates travel unescorted, often by bus, as part of the process of transitioning back into the community.
Records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that 327 inmates were placed on escaped status during those years. About 65 of them were simply late arrivals, though the circumstances of their tardiness are not detailed. Most of the escapes occurred as inmates were traveling without escort from a prison to a halfway house. The remaining few took place during travel for social, medical or other purposes that were not specified.
The bureau could not say how many who fled have since been apprehended.
The escapees are a fraction of the roughly 30,000 who travel unescorted to halfway houses each year. But the data nonetheless expose lingering imperfections in a system that’s come under scrutiny from the Justice Department’s watchdog and that relies on trust that inmates nearing the end of their sentences will arrive at their destinations as scheduled.
“It’s an unfortunate reality that a number of these individuals are not going to succeed,” agency spokesman Ed Ross said. “But they have certainly been given the opportunities to prepare themselves the entire time while they’re in prison.”
Inmates permitted to travel from minimum-security prisons to halfway houses are placed on a strict travel schedule and required to report at a specific time, Ross said. Those failing to do so could face criminal charges, disciplinary action and relocation to a higher-security facility. Assigning escorts for the inmates would be unnecessarily costly for the government, especially given “the minimal security requirements of these offenders,” he said.
“The real issue is whether you’ve made the right judgment about who to trust and who not to trust being unaccompanied in a situation like that,” said Republican Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, a member of the House Judiciary Committee’s crime subcommittee.
Crimes committed by inmates on furlough are rare, according to quarterly escape reports that the AP reviewed.
But they do show that in March 2013, David Pederson, an inmate traveling unescorted to a halfway house in Council Bluffs, Iowa, was accused of two separate carjackings targeting women and children after prosecutors said he got hold of an air pistol that looked like a firearm.
That summer, a man imprisoned for a series of bank robberies was charged with robbing two more banks near Omaha, Nebraska, after leaving a bus taking him from a Texas prison to a halfway house. The man, Albert Dansby, was sentenced to seven years in prison.
In 2012, a convict left unguarded to fly to Denver, Merle Hatch, instead robbed a bank near Portland, Oregon, and was shot to death by police after a confrontation with officers days later.
“I think the system works as good as it can at this point,” said Joe Gunja, a former federal prison warden who consults on security issues. “The only way to fix it 100 percent, and I don’t agree with doing it, would be to physically escort someone from point A to point B. But it just wouldn’t make sense to do that to a low-security inmate.”
The prison system for years has permitted furloughs for inmates being moved from one correctional facility to another, such as a halfway house. The furlough program also permits eligible inmates to temporarily leave prison for purposes including a funeral, medical treatment or an educational or religious function.
A 2010 audit of the program from the Justice Department’s inspector general faulted the Bureau of Prisons for failing to keep complete records on the number of inmates who had escaped while on furlough and the crimes they had committed while on the loose. The report also criticized the agency for failing to regularly review data to ensure that furlough transfers were properly granted. And it identified instances of inmates who remained fugitives for months.
The audit recommended that the agency regularly review its escape data, and the bureau agreed in response that it would produce quarterly reviews to document the problem. The AP in February requested those reports from 2012-14.