The Dirty 30 | #5 - A Testament to Ineptitude: Escapes and Mistaken Releases

In 2013, Corrections Corporation of America is "celebrating" its thirtieth anniversary.  We believe there is nothing to celebrate about 30 years of profiting off of incarceration.  In response Grassroots Leadership and Public Safety and Justice Campaign published "The Dirty Thirty: Nothing to Celebrate About Thirty Years of Corrections Corporation of America," a list of thirty stories that exhibit the most troubling aspects of the company's history.  Each week we'll highlight one of these stories.  Click here to view the full report.  Printed copies are available in limited quanitity.  For more information please contact Kymberlie Quong Charles.

Numerous escapes and mistaken releases demonstrate Corrections Corporation of America’s failure to properly train its staff and sufficiently invest in its facilities. In the case of Florida’s Hernando County Jail, a catalogue of cost-cutting operational failures manifested in a series of escapes, eventually leading the county to take over the facility in 2010. The escapes began shortly after CCA constructed the $8 million jail in 1989, with a state investigator highlighting “a combination of improper cell security checks by staff, defective cell doors and ineffective security grating behind the light fixture.”[1] Following the escape of four prisoners in January 1990, it transpired that prison staff had not been following the required state protocols of checking prisoners who were known escape risks every fifteen minutes, and had falsified state-mandated logs. Escapes ranged from a prisoner removing a stainless steel plate in a shower stall,[2] one cutting a hole in the ceiling,[3] another walking out through an unlocked door and then climbing out over the roof[4] to a prisoner replacing his identification bracelet with a low-security one fished out of a trashcan, enabling him to join a work detail outside the jail and then flee.[5] After the jail went into county hands, Michael Page, who led the Sheriff’s Office in the takeover, pointed to mismanagement and routinely ignored maintenance problems as pivotal reasons for CCA’s failure at the facility. Page interviewed former CCA employees applying for jobs at the new county-run jail, rejecting most either as a result of failed background checks or not meeting standards. “Frankly,” Page said, “I don’t understand why a few of them weren’t in jail.”[6]

CCA has seen heavy criticism for its security policies, including the company’s negligence in preventing and responding to escapes. In 2009 at Mississippi’s Delta Correctional Facility, a prisoner serving a life sentence for armed robbery and aggravated assault was given several weeks advance notice that he was going to an off-site doctor’s appointment and was not prevented access to a contraband cell phone as per protocols, which he used to plan his escape with the help of his cousin.[7] While driving through Tennessee the pair were stopped by police Sgt. Mark Chesnut, who was shot five times. Chesnut survived the shooting and later settled a lawsuit against CCA that alleged poor security protocols at DCF had led to the escape. As a private company with vested interests, CCA tries to cover itself when incidents do arise and their response is no different when it comes to escapes. In 2008, a prisoner escaped through the ventilation system at Nashville’s Metro Detention Facility, with staff waiting two days before issuing a warrant for his arrest.[8]

In addition to numerous escapes, CCA staff have also mistakenly released prisoners. From the time CCA opened Oklahoma’s David L. Moss Criminal Justice Center in 1999, the center was plagued by accidental releases, eventually leading to the facility’s takeover by Tulsa County in 2005 (see #16). Administrative errors ranged from an employee incorrectly recording a prisoner’s offense, allowing him to post bond in 1999, to the accidental release of at least a dozen people incarcerated - some of whom had been convicted of violent crimes - due to staff mistakes, including releasing prisoners who impersonated others scheduled for release. CCA’s record of mistaken releases is no better at its other facilities. For example, in 2007, nine prisoners were released at Florida’s Bay County Jail due to staff errors.[9] The lack of training of CCA staff continues to stand out as an explicator of the company’s failure to correctly manage its incarcerated population, derided by employees themselves. A CCA employee who was fired as a result of one of the incidents commented, “I was never trained how to read court documents … No one ever gave me any formal training on how to do anything down there.”[10]

On the other hand, the active involvement of CCA staff has also led to successful escapes. In October 1998, four prisoners escaped from the South Central Correctional Facility after a guard allowed bolt cutters to be smuggled into the prison. The escape occurred in broad daylight, with two of the prisoners tying up a local farmer and stealing his truck. A CCA supervisor was fired in connection with the escape and it was later revealed that only one officer had been placed on duty in the recreation yard instead of the mandated two.[11] At the same facility in January 1999, a prisoner escaped by dressing up as a guard and persuading a female prison guard to escort him out.[12] Similarly in April 2006, a CCA guard was charged after helping prisoner escape from the Hernando County Jail after a guard allowed bolt cutters to be smuggled into the prison.[13]

  1. Dan DeWitt, “Guard Fired Over Inmates’ Escape; State Review Blames Staff, Jail Construction,” St. Petersburg Times, March 21, 1990, pg. 1.
  2. Dan DeWitt, “Inmate Escapes from Hernando Jail,” St. Petersburg Times, December 19, 1990, pg. 1.
  3. Jamie Jones, “County jail escapee caught a day later,” St. Petersburg Times, November 6, 2002.
  4. Jonathan Abel, “Inmate escapes from jail,” Tampa Bay Times, February 11, 2006.
  5. Jamie Malernee, “Prison escapee capitalized on opportunities,” St. Petersburg Times, July 6, 2001.
  6. John Woodrow Cox and Barbara Behrendt, “Hernando County’s takeover of jail brings year of sweeping changes,” Tampa Bay Times. August 27, 2011.
  7. Kate Howard, “Mark Chesnut, officer shot on interstate, sues CCA for more than $14 million,” The Tennessean, October 30, 2009.
  8. “CCA waited before issuing warrant on escape Terrell Watson last seen in the prison on Sunday,” WSMV, February 21, 2008.
  9. Office of County Manager, Bay County Florida, “Incident Review – Erroneous Releases, Bay County Jail,” November 13, 2007.
  10. Susan Hylton, “CCA Supervisor Fired Over Mistaken Inmate Releases,” Tulsa World, June 7, 2001.
  11. “Guard Supervisor at Clifton Prison Fired After Four Inmates Escaped,” Associated Press, October 23, 1998.
  12. “Tennessee recaptures killer who escaped in guard garb,” Associated Press, 3 February 1999.
  13. Asjylyn Loder, “Guard helped plot jail break, officers say,” Tampa Bay Times, April 15, 2006.