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String of prison breaks

Why are so many inmates making it out of the big house?

It is the great stuff of great thrillers, movies, books: Inmates locked away in prison, scheming, finally coming up with a plan to break out from behind bars.  But it seems prison and jailbreaks have been happening a lot lately in real life. 

In just the past month, a convicted murderer and attempted murderer used a handcrafted rope and improvised hook to escape from escaping from a maximum-security Iowa prison by scaling the walls when a guard tower was empty.  A man accused of abduction and assault in Ohio snuck out of a jail by hiding in a trash dumpster.  Two violent inmates escaped a maximum-security prison in South Carolina the same way.  They were taken out with the trash.  In Texas, a death row prisoner flashed a fake I.D., was allowed to walk out of a jail in civilian clothes.  And on Friday night, in Yakima County, Washington, nine inmates escaped by climbing through a hole in the ceiling and tying together bed sheets to repel from the roof.  Four inmates escape the same jail in 1994 with a similar plan.

How and why is this happening?  Wayne Johnson of the Teamster’s local 760 Union, which represents the Yakima County Jail’s corrections officers and clerical staff and Sheila Vaughan, a former warden, join MSNBC-TV's Dan Abrams to discuss the issue.

DAN ABRAMS, MSNBC HOST: All right.  Ms. Vaughan, I understand that you think part of the issue is the holiday season? 

SHEILA VAUGHAN, FORMER CHIEF, NYC DEPT. OF CORRECTIONS: Well, that’s been our experience.  And it was something that we concentrated  on Rikers Island for the 23 years I was there.  During the holiday season emotions among the inmate population certainly are strained. 

They can’t be with their family.  They can’t help their families.  They are separated.  Perhaps they’re not getting any visits.  So there is more of a tendency to risk whatever it would take to possibly escape. 

ABRAMS: Really?  I mean what, Thanksgiving, Christmas?  I mean it’s that time? 

VAUGHAN: Yes.  It’s that time of year, as the song says. 


VAUGHAN: You can imagine being separated from your family, being uncertain about what your future holds.  Perhaps the embarrassment of what your arrest has caused your family.  All of these emotions are very high.  They’re certainly prevalent among the inmate population. 

ABRAMS: All right.  Mr. Johnson, you know what some people are saying.  Some people are saying, you know, it’s the corrections officer’s fault.  They didn’t do enough.  The other side I guess the argument is you’re not giving us enough money.

WAYNE JOHNSON, UNION LEADER FOR JAIL'S CORRECTIONS OFFICERS: We believe it’s staffing levels.  They escaped from the fourth floor.  And this is the same floor that they escaped from prior several years ago.  And they’ve got about 180 inmates up there versus four officers.  And it happened during feeding time. 

They were down on one end of the facility feeding the other inmates and these other inmates that escaped had about 20 to 30 minutes to punch a hole through the roof and escape without being seen until later, when one of the officers noticed them on the tower.

ABRAMS: But if it’s happened before in the same prison, the same sort of situation, using the same kind of stuff, isn’t there some way apart from more staff to try and stop that? 

JOHNSON: Well, actually, that building is not built for what they’re using it for.  The fourth floor is probably not the correct floor that they should have those inmates on.  Those are more high-end inmates and they should probably be on a lower floor, so if they do try to punch through the ceiling, it’s concrete. 

ABRAMS: Have you guys been saying that for a long time?  I mean is this the first time you’ve complained about this? 

JOHNSON: We’ve complained more about staffing levels.  It is the facilitators of the jail’s responsibility to move those inmates.  But I was talking to some of the staff today and they brought it to my attention that on the lower floors the ceilings are concrete, and on the upper floor on the fourth, basically what it is, is chicken wire with kind of some plaster and cement over it, so it was fairly easy for them to punch a hole through it. 

ABRAMS: You know Ms. Vaughan, we do hear in prison after prison, jail after jail, courthouse after courthouse, we’re understaffed, we’re understaffed, we’re understaffed, and that’s why this is happening.  You don’t buy it?

VAUGHAN: No, in my experience it’s not always the understaffing.  It has to do with supervision of the officers making sure that they’re doing their job.  Unfortunately, a correction officer has a very, very difficult job.  He is on duty for his entire eight-hour tour.  He’s constantly working. 

He’s got to be constantly alert.  That is a very draining job.  Supervisors are therefore required to keep the officers on point, to keep them making their tours of inspection, to ensure that they do it.  It’s unfortunate that an inmate’s cell door was left open for that length of time.     

ABRAMS: Are we overstating the amount of times this is happening, Ms. Vaughan?  Because I’ve never heard of this many jail and prison escapes. 

VAUGHAN: I’m not sure about that.  As I said, we used to remind staff at this time of year to be alert to these and fortunately, we’ll never know how many escape attempts or suicide attempts have been thwarted by officers doing simply doing their job. 

Watch the 'Abrams Report' for more analysis and interviews on the top legal stories each weeknight at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC TV.