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Jailbreak, Easy Escape

This bench sits right in the middle of the Pulaski county jail lobby. Inmates are placed here when they are first brought in. (Tommy Sladek/KRCG 13)

In the last five years, there have been 28 reported escapes from Missouri county jails, nine escapes in 2016 alone.

The numbers, though, do not include inmates who went “awol” from work release programs.

Records of escapes and escape attempts vary from county to county, leaving it difficult to compare to years past or against other states.

In September 2016, two inmates escaped the Pulaski county jail. The men faked an illness in order to be placed in the jail's lobby. Once there, they were able to swindle keys away from the only jailer on duty and walk out the front door of the 40-year-old facility.

In 11 of the 28 recent escapes the inmate or inmates use a flaw in the jail structure itself to break out. Some dismantled shower equipment; others used a crawl space in the ceiling to drop down into the jail lobby.

Stephen Saravara heads the criminal justice program at William Woods University in Fulton, Missouri. The former police officer and assisting prosecuting attorney spent decades working south of Boston, he says inmates will go great lengths to find a mistake in the system.

“Prisoners that really want to escape have all day to just watch you and watch your routine,” Saravara said. “Are you mixing it up? Are you checking everything at exactly the same time so they can figure when you are going here and there…”

“They’re looking for these things because sometimes they don’t have anything better to do than watch you…and they’ll find it.”

The number of inmates that went “AWOL” or escaped from us state institutions has dropped dramatically in the last 20 years. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of escapees in 1993 was over 14,000, while just 2,000 inmates managed to break out in 2013.

However a large majority are walkaways from community corrections that have minimal security.

Pulaski county residents voted in favor of a half-cent tax increase back in august to fund a new jail facility replacing the current one which sits below the county courthouse. Sheriff Ron Long says it took him and his department years to convince the public their current jail is no longer safe to the outside community.

“In order to get a decent product or get product for your money you have got to pay for it,” Long said. “I don't like paying taxes either, but I also don't mind paying if they're being used adequately for the betterment of our community.”

While sheriff's are independently elected officials, anything on the ballot has to be approved by the county commissioners, the overall budget handlers. Boone county commissioner Janet Thompson says no one has ever escaped their 25-year-old facility. Boone has focused on finding solutions that won’t include paying for a new jail.

“We’ve been looking at ways to keep the inmate population down,” Thompson said. “When we expand our jail we have to go to the voters and say we need more money and be able to fund that jail expansion.”

In 1980, 184,000 inmates were held in local jails throughout the United States.

In 2014, the jail population grew to 744,600.

The Cole County Jail dealt with severe overcrowding issues before its new state-of-the-art location opened in 2011.

An entire floor of the facility has been kept empty in case new pods ever need to be built.

Every aspect of the jail is garnered around the security of the inmates. They are brought in through a “sallyport”, a controlled entryway where the law enforcement vehicle passes multiple security gates before the subject in custody ever steps foot out of the patrol car.

Captain John Wheeler said Cole County’s multi-door system throughout the jail sways inmates away from trying to make a run for it.

“When they get inside, one door opens; they step through, the door closes. They get to the pod, the next door opens; they step through, and the door closes,” Wheeler said. “It's also a psychological thing to let them know when you're going through it's not going to be an easy thing to try to escape from our facility.”

The recreation area, a room slightly bigger than a one-car garage, has been the closest inmates can get to the outside world. If the steel cage would ever be tampered with, sensors will immediately notify staff of a possible escape.

The Missouri Sheriffs Association has worked for years on implementing procedures and policies issued to combat statewide, a major solution to preventing jail escapes, especially for a state without regulated jail standards.

Some policies regarding jailbreak protocol have already been put into use, while others remain in the works.

Pulaski county officials said it will be at least 3-4 years before their new jail is complete. Until then, the county will rely on technology upgrades like eye scans to help prevent future escapes. Eye scans can allow deputies to identify a person in the matter of seconds.

Law enforcement personnel expect the want for inmates to escape won’t stop anytime soon, but advances in policies and procedures, technology, and design, could keep hundreds of potentially violent offenders behind bars and away from the public.

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