Why you should care
Because the odds of breaking out aren’t quite as high as you might think.
In 1982, notorious bank robber and heroin trafficker Stephen Kessler escaped from Rocky Butte Jail in Portland, Oregon. After stripping a group of jail chaplains of their civilian clothes and shooting a deputy in the head, Kessler broke out with five other inmates. He proceeded to lead authorities on a monthlong manhunt as he crossed much of the U.S. before being recaptured in Missouri.
Kessler’s escape was shocking, but where he escaped from was not. After all, Oregon is the state where inmates are most likely to break out, according to crime data dating back to 1978. Analysis of the data by Casino.org shows that:
You have a 2.7 percent chance of staging a breakout in the Beaver State, compared with just a .03 percent chance in Ohio, the U.S. state with the toughest prisons to escape.
The odds of escape in Oregon may seem pretty unlikely, but consider that they are slightly higher than that of a man between the ages of 25 and 44 never having had a female sexual partner, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oregon is followed by Colorado and the District of Columbia, while Texas and Wisconsin follow Ohio to make up the top three states for preventing breakouts.
Nearly 9 in 10 escapes occur in minimum security prisons, so states with high numbers of lower-security prisons tend to top the list, says Paul Taylor, Casino.org’s head of marketing. “Combine this with the ever-increasing number of prisoners and lack of guards on patrol, and it is clear why there is a growing number of attempted escapes in these state,” Taylor says. In the past three decades, incarceration has increased by 340 percent in the U.S. — and for every 11.2 prisoners there are just two guards, putting additional strain on governments’ ability to police the prison population.
There are 428,870 correctional officers in America, a decrease of 6,000 since 2014, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, the U.S. prison population is more than 2 million. While the incarceration rate is currently at its lowest level since 1996, at 860 per 100,000 in 2016, it remains the highest in the world by far. Consider that Canada’s rate is only 114 per 100,000, while Japan incarcerates a paltry 48 per 100,000.
Oregon has other challenges, including the health of correctional officers. After three killed themselves and 30 percent acknowledged symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in 2012, a series of studies were commissioned that eventually found half of the state’s correctional officers exhibited signs of depression. Since then, a similar trend across other states has led officer unions to push back against cuts that diminish staffing to untenable levels.
“By having reduced correctional staff, you are subjecting your men to undue violence — they are basically on their own,” says Kevin Tamez, managing partner for the MPM Group in Philadelphia, which works on corrections cases. Some of that pressure could be alleviated in part by the First Step Act, which advanced in the Senate this week. The prison reform bill will ease mandatory minimum laws while increasing incentives for prisoners to behave while incarcerated, which could decrease prison populations.
Nationwide, there have been a total of 257,445 prison breaks from 1978-2015. While experts say escapes are not on the rise, there is concern that the current justice system isn’t sustainable. In fact, breakouts tend to be the result of weaknesses in prison resources, Tamez says. “They’ve got these prisons that are 60 years old, 100 years old, and the infrastructure doesn’t support it.” In upstate New York, for example, a pair of convicted killers seduced a prison seamstress, who smuggled them power tools, which they then used to cut through their cell walls and into a steam pipe before finally breaking out. While seemingly the stuff of Hollywood-esque geniuses, the disaster could have easily been avoided with some pretty commonsense measures. “Believe it or not, somebody didn’t even put in a trip alarm, the kind you could put in your garage,” Tamez says.