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Archive for April, 2014

Tales From the Local Jail: Question Authority

April 10th, 2014

In retirement, you keep on learning. In putting a training class together, I like to research through print and on line the events that are happening in our nation’s jails and prisons. I tell my classes that “Nothing surprises me”; I learn every day. I am going to talk about three escapes from custody that are surprising for several reasons: daring, ingenuity and unfortunately-staff mistakes. Hence the title-but I will get to that later. First, let’s look at three escapes:

  • In 2007, a jail inmate in Indiana stripped, squeezed his 130 pound body through a cellblock door food slot and redressed. He was caught wandering through the jail looking for an unlocked door-and freedom (Associated Press, 2007).
  • In 2014, an Oregon state prison inmate managed to do the following in one night: jumped into a cellblock laundry cart, burrowed himself under inmates’ dirty clothes, broke out windows, drilled out a door lock, broke into a metal cage that stored tools, broke through a wall in the prison laundry, dragged bags of tools, dug a hole under one fence, and climbed over a second fence. He exhausted himself and gave up. Tired and bleeding, he huddled under a blanket in the recreation yard and waited for officers to find him, which they did. The interesting thing to note that one day before, the facility had been on alert because of another escape attempt. Both inmates used dummy heads in their bunks to fool officers. One inmate even put headphones on the dummy head. (A nice touch, don’t you think?) (Zaitz, 2014).
  • In 2012, a Virginia jail inmate climbed over a brick wall and barbed wire in the jail recreation yard. In a jailhouse interview, he said that no one noticed for hours. He was able to scale the barriers because only one deputy was on duty in a control booth overlooking the recreation area. He described his escape as a ‘piece of cake’, and he had two days of freedom in the community. While at large, he stayed with a local woman and even had his hair cut into a stylish buzz cut. He is serving a 14 year sentence for armed robbery, insisted that he was not dangerous, but was only trying to get home to his family. In the interview, he asked for the public’s help to get home to his children (McNamara, 2012).

Those of us who have worked inside correctional facilities know that inmates have the energy and intelligence to try to escape. But as a veteran correctional officer I could not help but wonder if these inmates took advantage of staff complacency; maybe thinking that the staff did not question enough their own authority.

What I mean is this: the correctional officer is the backbone, the foundation of any security system inside a correctional facility, no matter what the custody level or type of housing. In these cases, the inmates had the opportunity and the time to get away. They took advantage of short staffing and apparently, staff complacency. I am not saying that these officers did not do their jobs well or are incompetent. What I am saying that custody is a constant ‘cat and mouse’ game, and officers always have to think of ways to perform the task of security more effectively. Wiggling through a food slot and exhausting oneself in an escape attempt takes advantage of staff not being around, or not ‘nosy’ enough to frequently check areas in the facility. I do not believe that all inmate escapes can be prevented-but I shudder to think of the possible IQs of some inmates that try. But we must do what we can to prevent escapes. Think of both the chagrin of the staff and the disgust from the public if inmates pull one over on officers in your facility and escape, especially taking all night to do it.

If an inmate had all night to try to break out of a correctional facility, then both supervisors and line staff must reexamine how the task of security is accomplished. It begins with self-examination. All staff must, in a sense, question their authority. They should ask questions, such as:

  • Are we aggressively making our rounds throughout the facility? By aggressively, I mean are we really making our presence known? Do inmates very frequently have to look over their shoulder to see where officers and staff are? Sure-no squad of officers can be everywhere at once-but we sure should try.
  • Are we ‘nosy’ enough? Just because a door is locked at 3: AM may not mean that all is well. Do we look around enough? Are our searches thorough enough? Do we go into areas that are empty and check them anyway?
  • Are we too complacent? Do we think that just because nothing has happened in a while, such as an escape, that all is well? As professionally as we are trained, and as proud of the job as we are-remember: out in those cells inmates are always thinking of ways to do time on their terms-or not do time at all.

The three escape stories posted in this blog have one thing in common: Correctional staffs were not present enough or not attentive enough. Inmates knew this and used it to their advantage. After an escape, supervisors can say that maybe it was due to short staffing, officer fatigue or flaws in the security system. No matter what reason is given, correctional staff must be innovative, find more effective ways to do the job, and often have to ‘do more with less’. The men and women who work inside our nation’s correctional institutions are deserving of our support and respect. We all should put our heads together-from the top management down to the squad level-and think of how to do the job better.

Question your authority-question how you do your job. Make the necessary changes or adaptations. The facility-your bread and butter, the place that pays the bills and to who the public places its trust-may run more efficiently.


Associated Press. (March 8, 2007). Skinny inmate escapes through food slot.,, Accessed March 15, 2007.

McNamara, Ann. (September 28, 2012). Inmate says escape was a ‘piece of cake’. WAVY,, Accessed January 8, 2013.

Zaitz, Les. (January 24, 2014). The Oregonian. CorrectionsOne News,, Accessed January 24, 2014. author, Gary Cornelius, is an interim member on the Board of the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP) representing local jails. He is also a member of ACA, AJA, and the American Association of Correctional and Forensic Psychology. In 2008, Gary co founded ETC, LLC, Education and Training in Corrections with colleague Timothy P. Manley, MSW, LCSW, Forensic Social Worker.

Visit the Gary Cornelius page

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