Slate's Explainer: Rise in Prison Breakouts

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A rash of prison escapes has made national news recently — Slate senior editor Andy Bowers explains that even with the uptick in breakouts, escaping from prison is never easy.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

In Yakima, Washington, police are hunting for two of nine inmates who escaped from the county jail on Friday. They used bedsheets tied into ropes to make their escape; you thought that only happened in the movies. It raises a perfect question for the Explainer team and our friends at the online magazine Slate: How often do inmates in federal and state prisons manage to escape? Here with the answer is Slate's Andy Bowers.

ANDY BOWERS (Slate): Not very often. In 1998, the most recent year for which data are available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 6,530 people escaped or were AWOL from state prisons; that was a little more than one half of 1 percent of the total population of 1.1 million state prisoners. And the numbers before 1998 show a steady decline in escapes. In 1993, 14,305 prisoners, or nearly 2 percent of the prison population at the time, escaped or went AWOL.

True, there are still thousands of escapees every year, so why don't you often hear about them? The vast majority of escapees are so-called walkaways from community corrections facilities that have minimal supervision. Dramatic Hollywood-style escapes from maximum-security prisons are the ones that draw media attention. Like their maximum-security counterparts, the minimum-security walkaways are usually recovered.

And if you're wondering which prisons are the most escape resistant, that would be the federal variety. Only a tiny number of prisoners ever slip by the feds.

CHADWICK: Andy Bowers is a Slate senior editor, and that Explainer was compiled by Chris Sullentrop.

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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