In upstate New York, police have been scrambling after escaped prisoners Richard Matt and David Sweat, who were both serving near-life sentences at Clinton Correctional Facility as of two weeks ago. The convicted murderers apparently mapped out their plans on their cell walls before slipping out of the facility through the building’s steam tunnels.
Matt and Sweat are just two of thousands of past prison escapees. In 2014 alone, the Bureau of Justice Statistics recorded more than 2,000 escapes; in 2011, that number exceeded 3,000. In 1993, it was as high as 14,000.
Hidden Motives of Escapees
Despite those staggering statistics, very few of those escapes are Shawshank-esque, and very few escapees are like Matt and Sweat. Instead, these numbers are a result of less dramatic instances, such as when prisoners simply walk off the premises of a halfway house or don’t quite make curfew because of a late bus.
Those who escape are often harmless nonviolent offenders who are close to parole and already living in low-security facilities, but this is not the case for all escapees. A 2012 New York Times series on halfway houses told the stories of several fugitive inmates—and what they did after their successful escapes. One man killed a woman who had rejected him. Another shot a man just three miles from the facility from which he had gone missing. A third escapee cut off a man’s ear during a brawl in a liquor store.
More recent examples follow a similar pattern. In Texas this month, two men, by the names of Larry Eggins and Brian Whitford, signed themselves out of Austin Transitional Center and didn’t come back. Eggins, who was serving time for a drug offense, was caught a few days later and returned to jail. The other, Whitford, had robbed two banks prior to being convicted; after escaping, he returned to the same banks, successfully robbing one and then attempting to rob the other. A spokesman for Texas’s Lone Star Fugitive Task Force explained to local media that such cases are common because halfway houses are low-security facilities, often lacking guards or even locked doors. The houses use “an honor system,” he said, so “if you want to walk out the front door, that [option] is available to you.”
It’s an option that many take—even when doing so doesn’t seem to make sense. Most fugitives are caught, and the punishment for escape is generally additional charges and more time in jail, not returning to another halfway house. So why would someone like Jerome Dale, who had onlyeleven days left on his sentence in an Alabama halfway house, decide to escape, just to be given fifteen additional months in prison? And why would some prisoners refuse to even accept offers to leave their high-security facilities to transfer to a halfway house, even while knowing that the result will be more jail time?
Only Half A Solution
Halfway houses are supposed to be the final step between prison and returning to society. Located in communities where inmates will eventually be released to, these houses are intended to provide counseling, job training, and other rehabilitative services.
As a criminal justice tool, halfway houses have often been touted for reducing recidivism rates, but that claim is suspect. A Pennsylvania state study showed that, despite the billions of dollars invested in both public and private halfway houses, their recidivism rate is higher than the rate for the corrections system as a whole. The recidivism rate for Community Education Centers (CEC), the company that runs 30 percent of all halfway houses nationwide, is as high as 67 percent. After reviewing the findings, John Wetzel, the Pennsylvania corrections secretary, called the houses “an abject failure.”
Living In The Shadows
Conditions at halfway houses are often abysmal. A 2012 New York Times article described them as, “a shadow corrections network, where drugs, gang activity and violence, including sexual assaults, often go unchecked.” Shon Hopwood, a lawyer who completed a stint at an Iowa halfway house, wrote:
“The living conditions were worse than prison. When it rained, the halfway house staff would break out a dozen five-gallon buckets…We had two bathrooms for over 70 guys. And the owner liked to employ young twenty-something kids to staff the place (cheap labor), so at night while I tried to sleep, in order to be productive at my job the next day, the young staff were letting women, bottles of booze, and drugs in the front door.”
Hopwood’s experience sadly isn’t novel or embellished. The former director of a CEC-owned halfway house in California told SFGate that residents would leave the house at night to buy drugs, and that, even though drug use was “rampant,” he was told to leave residents who failed drug tests alone, because filling beds was the priority. He also explained that, because the house’s staff was untrained—the clinical director lacked a college degree and barely made more than minimum wage—they were unable to address illnesses among the home’s more than one hundred residents.
The situation can be even worse when houses aren’t run by national conglomerates. In Florida, where there are no regulations on the industry, Troy Charles, who had a history of substance abuse and jail time, decided to start his own halfway house in 2011. It turned out that Charles used most of the money to purchase drugs, and the house folded just a year later, after Charles shot a resident.
Building A New House
All across the country, stories like these play out in poorly regulated halfway houses, and so far, very little has been done to improve the industry.
The reality is that halfway houses are a half-baked solution. Living conditions in these facilities are barely tolerable, with rampant corruption and abuse plaguing residents. When prisoners would rather escape and face further jail time than complete their stints in what are designed to be peaceful, rehabilitative facilities, we ought to take the hint.
These houses should have to adjust to steeper living-standard requirements, with a higher burden to provide the rehabilitative services that they promise. Full transparency and accountability is needed to ensure that halfway houses that break the rules are punished for it—not their residents.
In a recent Century Foundation report, “Dismantling the Prison State,” Patrick Radden Keefe addresses the immense social and fiscal costs of America’s aggressive incarceration policies, explaining why reliance on militant criminal justice doesn’t pay off. In a country where nearly two million members of the population are locked up, justice reform is crucial—and it needs to be holistic. Measures that lower the growing prison population or reduce sentencing for minor crimes, for example, would not only be beneficial for the system as a whole, but would also help alleviate some of the burden that halfway houses simply cannot sustain on their own.