Last September produced a bumper crop of prison and jail escapes around the country, including a desperate escape by two Texas prisoners that resulted in the death of a guard, a car jacking and two shootouts. Plus a dead horse.
Jerry Duane Martin, 37, and John Ray Falk, Jr., 40, were just two Texas prisoners working oppressive field labor jobs at the Wynne Unit, a Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) facility, until they escaped and killed a guard in the process on September 24, 2007. Field labor is the TDCJ's equivalent of a chain gang. The "hoe squads" work outside the prison fence in agricultural fields, often literally with an eight-pound hoe in hand. They are supervised by armed guards on horseback.
The work is hard. Verbal and psychological abuse by the guards is plentiful. It is essentially a disciplinary detail without the benefit of any disciplinary process. Prisoners who have disciplinary problems are put to work in the field, as are new prisoners, who must "prove themselves worthy" of a non-paying job in industry or support services, and prisoners the administration simply doesn't like, such as "writ writers." In Martin's case, he was likely on a hoe squad due to allegations that he had a sexual relationship with a nurse at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas. That infraction cost him 30 days of good time and resulted in his transfer to the Wynne Unit.
At about 10:30 a.m., Martin and Falk were deployed in the fields outside the 2,600-bed prison in Huntsville, along with 74 other prisoners monitored by six guards on horseback. Five of the guards were directly supervising the hoe squads and were armed with pistols, while seven-year TDCJ veteran Susan Canfield, 59, was a "high rider," a guard who carried a rifle and was charged with preventing any escapes.
Martin approached the guard who was supervising his squad and asked him to hold his watch while he worked. Violating procedures which require armed guards to maintain a 30-foot separation from prisoners, the guard allowed Martin to approach to hand over the watch. Instead, Martin snatched the guard from his horse and wrestled his .357 magnum pistol away from him, then tossed it to Falk.
The pair retreated across a field and stole a flatbed truck that was parked at a nearby repair facility with the keys in the ignition. They fired shots at Canfield, who returned fire along with other guards. Canfield maneuvered in front of the truck, which struck her horse, injuring it and causing Canfield to fall and receive an immediately fatal injury. Martin and Falk fled the immediate area. The horse, which survived the collision, was euthanized after it was discovered that it had also been shot.
The two escapees didn't get far. They ditched the truck at a defunct fast food joint about a mile south on I-45 at the Texas 30 interchange. At a nearby bank drive-through they carjacked a pickup truck and kidnapped the woman driving it. The Huntsville police, in close pursuit, shot out the pickup's tires and forced the pair to flee on foot.
Falk was caught without further incident soon thereafter. Martin was tracked by dogs and discovered hiding in a tree less than three hours later; after brief gunfire he was recaptured.
Falk had been serving a life sentence since 1986 for killing a Matagorda County lawyer after robbing him of $143. Martin was serving a 50-year sentence following a high-speed chase during which he used a .38-caliber revolver to fire on county deputies and state troopers who had responded to a domestic disturbance complaint. The pair now face dozens of felony charges, including "unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, escape, cruelty to animals, [and] multiple attempted capital murders because there were dozens of people that were shot at," said Walker County District Attorney David Weeks. "When it all comes down, both will be charged with capital murder, but it will take some time to sort through it."
Asked by the news media why he did it, Martin put it this way: He had no hope. "I don't have nothing left to lose," he said. Indeed, most Texas prisoners can understand that sentiment, as they are faced with an arbitrary and capricious state parole system that saps the hope from prisoners as they receive denial after denial for unchanging historic factors such as the nature of their offense and prior criminal record, with no inkling of when, or if, they will ever be released.
The TDCJ has one of the most secure prison systems in the nation, having experienced only two escapes each in 2005 and 2006. The total number of escapes from 2001 to 2006 was only 14, and many of those were "walk aways" from outside trusty camps.
"Prisons are stronger and better designed, with lots of bells and whistles, and there is more security," said Terry Perez, a Texas criminal justice consultant. "And there is no honor among criminals anymore. You hatch a plot today and somebody is going to snitch you off."
It makes one wonder all the more why TDCJ insists on taking any prisoners, especially ones with disciplinary problems and long sentences, outside secure prison fences, even if they are under armed supervision. This is especially true in light of the State Comptroller's recommendation a decade ago that the TDCJ eliminate field labor, because the work being done by the hoe squads could be completed more efficiently by farm equipment already owned by the TDCJ. Further, the cut in personnel would save TDCJ millions of dollars a year.
So why does do Texas prison officials insist on perpetuating the field labor system? It is a legacy of the plantation slavery mentality of the Old South. Prisoners in the hoe squads call the guards "Boss," and have to receive permission to perform even the most basic of bodily functions like urinating or drinking water, reminiscent of the 1967 movie classic Cool Hand Luke. As frequently reported by PLN, prison slave labor is an economically inefficient taxpayer boondoggle that serves the ideological needs of politicians in showing how "tough" they are on prisoners. Alas, it is not confined to the former confederacy.
In the tradition of southern slavery there were house slaves and field slaves, with the house slaves having the more prestigious status. TDCJ perpetuates this tradition by degrading its prisoner field workers. The field labor crews are also used to intimidate prisoners in the general population. Incur the displeasure of the administration, or even a single guard, and Texas prisoners can expect to end up on a hoe squad without any due process protections, since a transfer to field labor is an "administrative," not disciplinary, act.
Imagine spending your life in prison on a hoe squad, sweating in the heat and filth and verbally abused by your armed overseers, with no chance of parole, and perhaps you can begin to understand why Martin felt he had no hope.
Martin attempted suicide on September 26 after he was returned to the TDCJ and placed in the Estelle High Security Unit. He used boxer shorts to try to hang himself from his cell's light fixture. He was discovered, taken to a hospital and then handed back to the prison system. On December 4, a TDCJ report concluded that a guard supervisor had failed to follow proper procedures, which contributed to the escape and Canfield's death. The supervisor, Joe Jeffcoat, was the guard who allowed Martin to approach him so he could hold his watch.
Two other Texas escapes occurred within a week of the Huntsville breakout. Early in the morning of September 25, 2007, Antonio Martinez, 20; Jose Guillermo Portillo, 32; and Marcuese E. Tyler, 24, left their maximum security dormitory in the Nacogdoches County Jail through an unlocked door that led to a recreation yard. There they scaled three fences and disappeared. Immediate area searches were called off later that day after bloodhounds tracked the men's scent to a neighborhood about a mile and a half east of the jail. It is believed they caught a ride from there.
Ironically, the day before the escape, inspectors from Integrity Steel noted the door was malfunctioning in that the electronic solenoid controlling the door would not unlock. Apparently the lock cycled after the inspection, leaving the door open. Jailer Hector Navejar, 25, was arrested in connection with the escape.
"We believe that Navejar knew that the inmates were not in the jail for several hours and made no effort to report the escaped inmates," said Nacogdoches County Sheriff Thomas Kerss. "Navejar made false and misleading statements indicating the inmates were in the jail when they were not." Two of the escapees, Martinez and Portillo, were recaptured two days after the breakout; Martinez's brother, mother and father were arrested for assisting him. Tyler was caught on October 3.
On September 27, 2007, a federal prisoner at the Crystal City Detention Center overpowered a female guard, took her 12-gauge shotgun and absconded. At around 1:30 p.m., Vicente Jaimez Hernandez, 29, facing a 350-month sentence for carjacking, went over the roof and scaled a fence at the facility in Zavala County, Texas. He remains at large.
There was a spate of escapes from prisons and jails in other states during September 2007, too.
Raymond H. Johnson, 37, incarcerated at the Kilby Prison in Alabama, made a break for freedom on September 12. He was serving a sentence for burglary and was not considered armed or dangerous; he was captured on October 10 after being spotted in a stolen vehicle.
On September 11, 2007, seven prisoners escaped from the Hamblen County Jail near Knoxville, Tennessee after overpowering a guard and gaining entry to a control room. From there they remotely opened a door to the outside. The seven were living in a 32-bunk dormitory annex along with 62 other prisoners. Chief Deputy Wayne Mize blamed overcrowding and design flaws for the escape from the jail, which was designed for 197 prisoners but currently holds 296. The jailer was not seriously injured. Three of the prisoners were caught the next day, while the last escapee was captured on September 14 by U.S. Marshals and Sheriff's officers. One made it as far as Texas.
At around 2:00 a.m. on September 24, Joe Thomas Baker III, 19, escaped from the Robertson County Detention Facility in Tennessee. He sprinted through a door leading to the outside while guards were releasing another prisoner. The jailers gave chase but couldn't catch him. However, the following day an informant told authorities where Baker was staying and he was taken into custody.
Two convicted murderers from Washington state, Kollin Folsom, 24, and Roy Townsend, 37, escaped from the Florence Correctional Center in Arizona, operated by Corrections Corp. of America (CCA), on Sept. 17, 2007. The men, both serving sentences for murder, attacked and restrained a guard, then used ladders to defeat two fences at the CCA-run facility. Folsom was quickly caught, while Townsend was found in Spokane, Washington almost a month later.
In Utah, two prisoners escaped from the 110-bed Daggett County Jail on September 23, 2007. Danny Martin Gallegos, 49, and Juan Carlos "Blue" Diaz-Arevalo, 27, both state prisoners convicted of murder, were being housed at the jail. About a quarter of Utah's 6,500 prisoners are currently held in local facilities due to overcrowding in the state prison system. Gallegos and Diaz-Arevalo were in a recreation yard when they managed to sneak out a door that had been left unlocked so minimum-security prisoners could attend religious services.
From the minimum-security section of the jail they climbed a razor-wire topped fence to the roof, crossed the roof, jumped to the ground and attained their freedom. Their absence wasn?t noticed until the evening meal, over five hours later. The deputy sheriff who noticed the pair were missing was the only one on duty at the time, and there was only one deputy on duty when they escaped. Security cameras that covered the areas the escapees traversed were not functioning; the Sheriff was attending a conference at the time.
The two men disappeared into the "vast rugged" lands north of the jail, following in the footsteps of an escapee who, the previous year, trekked all the way to his hometown in Wyoming before being caught.
One week after their escape Gallegos and Diaz-Arevalo were captured. They had come upon a summer home in the wilderness and robbed the retired police officer who lived there. They stole the man's SUV and three firearms, leaving him tied up; however, he was able to free himself about an hour later and raised the alarm. Gallegos was shot and wounded by police when he turned a rifle on them after they spiked the SUV's tires.
Diaz-Arevalo, though armed with a pistol, was captured unharmed.
Sheriff's officials were criticized for waiting a day to inform the public about the escape, while they notified local Mormon church officials immediately. Further criticism was leveled because the county used the jail as a cash cow. Daggett County has only 967 residents, but maintains a 110-bunk jail. For each state prisoner housed at the jail the county is paid $45 per day, or almost $1.3 million a year.
Also controversial is the persistent understaffing, poor staff training and faulty equipment at the jail. On October 3, the Utah DOC removed 20 prisoners from the facility, citing concerns that "low-risk" prisoners were being housed in a building behind the jail that was not secure. This could cost the county $320,000 a year. About 50 state and 25 federal prisoners remain at the jail. The lone deputy who was on duty when the escape occurred resigned on September 28; he claimed to have been in the bathroom throwing up at the time of the escape. "Someone goofed up," observed state Rep. Curt Oda.
Ohio prisoner Justin M. Cline, 21, was caught on September 8, 2007 after escaping from the Southeastern Correctional Facility near Lancaster the day before. He jumped a fence, stole an unlocked vehicle and left the county. The vehicle contained a .45 handgun and ammunition, which were recovered by police before Cline was captured. His cousin was arrested on a charge of obstructing police business.
Another Ohio prisoner, Wayne Harris, 27, climbed two fences to escape from the minimum security community-based River City Correctional Center on Sept. 18. He had arrived at the facility only five days earlier. His short-lived freedom lasted one hour before the police tracked him down.
On September 13, Kentucky state prisoner Larry A. Crump, 23, made an unusual exit from the Bourbon County Jail. The 6' tall, 180-pound escapee managed to crawl through a mail slot that measured approximately 15" by 15" with a security bar in the middle. He wasn't missed until 15 hours later. He was being held at the jail pending a court appearance on charges that included a prior escape, in 2004, from the Bourbon County Courthouse.
Jun William Vang, 27, serving a 13-year sentence for attempted murder, was incarcerated at the Lino Lakes state prison in Minnesota until his escape on September 8, 2007. He walked away from a minimum security unit, and was found and returned to custody a week later. The public was not notified until 45 hours after his escape.
The head count at the Lower Buckeye Jail in Phoenix, Arizona was short one prisoner on Sept. 6 after Maurice Desjardis, 18, absconded from the jail's food plant. He went to the home of his 15-year-old girlfriend, which was where police found him early in the morning. He was recaptured following a 3-hour standoff; his girlfriend's mother was arrested for harboring a fugitive.
Some escapes are extremely short-lived. When Nathaniel Smith, a 22-year-old New York prisoner, ran from a work crew at the NY DOC corrections training academy on Sept. 7, he was caught in just 26 minutes. He was serving time at the Summit Shock Incarceration Corr. Facility, a boot camp-type program. He will now likely be placed at a maximum security prison.
On September 2, 2007, Connecticut state police were informed that a state prisoner, Ishmael Mack, 21, had escaped from the Yale New Haven Hospital, where he had been taken for treatment. Mack was wearing a hospital gown when he gave the guard assigned to watch him the slip. He was captured at his girlfriend's house the same day.
Roger H. Nordling, 54, made his break from the Geiger Corrections Center in Spokane, Washington during Bible study on Sept. 27. He climbed to the roof of the facility and jumped a fence; a car was waiting for him.
A prisoner at the Whatcom County, Washington jail used impersonation to gain some fleeting freedom. On September 5, 2007, Timothy J. Pantalia, 19, pretended he was a jail prisoner with a similar name and appearance who was due to be released, and walked out the front door. He turned himself in the same day. "What happened in the jail is inexcusable," said Sheriff Bill Elfo. "We're going to follow up on it."
The Fannin County jail in Georgia experienced a triple escape on September 23 when three unnamed prisoners overpowered a guard. The guard was not hurt, and the escapees were caught the next day after K-9 units and a helicopter were called in.
On September 22, Scott Howard Holmes, 39, an Idaho DOC prisoner, managed to escape twice within two hours. He took flight from the Gooding County Jail at 2 a.m. after a rookie jailer, who had not yet completed training, forgot to lock a door. Holmes was captured a short time later and taken to the booking area, where he broke free from the lone deputy on duty and bolted again. He remains at large.
Oregon minimum security prisoner Chad Lee Edwards, 18, was discovered missing from the Warner Creek Correctional Facility on September 21. Details of his escape were not available, but the prison has only one perimeter fence. He was found by the police three days later.
Finally, Rashad Nealy, 19, serving time at the minimum security Black River Correctional Center in Wisconsin, was taken into custody less than 12 hours after he left through a side door on Sept. 28. He was the subject of a manhunt that involved K-9 teams, the State Police, the Sheriff's office and aerial support.
Prison escapes are usually brief and potentially bloody. Frequently innocent people are injured, and friends or family members of the escapees are sometimes charged with aiding and abetting. The prisoners are almost always caught as they generally lack the resources to stay free; they risk receiving longer sentences, and sometimes are shot or killed.
With the odds so stacked against them, only desperate people in desperate situations with little hope would even attempt a prison or jail break. The litany of escapes described above, which occurred in just a one-month period, is a telling barometer of the hopeless climate of our nation's criminal justice system as it sinks further into violence and despair.
Sources: Huntsville Item, Lufkin Daily News, Houston Chronicle, Associated Press, www.certops.com, www.newschannel5.com, Dallas Morning News, Bay City Tribune, McKinney Courier-Gazette, Salt Lake Tribune, Desert Morning News, Vernal Express, Herald-Leader, www.wtap.com, Eagle-Gazette, Pioneer Press, www.KPHO.com, Times Union, Bellingham Herald, www.ksat.com, Jackson County Sheriff's Office news release, Deseret Morning News, KTVB, Salem-News.com, Cincinnati Enquirer
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