As authorities confirmed that there was a "special relationship" between an Alabama corrections officer and the prisoner with whom she disappeared last week, experts in criminal justice and law said they were not surprised by the development.
The close proximity of staff members and inmates, the prisoners’ lack of privacy and the dynamic between female staff members and male inmates in correctional facilities can create opportunities for inappropriate bonds to form, they said.
It's “a very common story,” said the director of the Project on Addressing Prison Rape, Brenda Smith, a law professor at American University.
“I think that it is sort of the construct of supervision in these settings that creates those environments and those opportunities,” said Smith, adding that such facilities are sexualized environments, where male inmates lack privacy and female staff members are often subject to sexual harassment from inmates or other staff members.
Vicky White, 56, is wanted on a charge of permitting or facilitating the escape of Casey White, 38, from the Lauderdale County Jail, Sheriff Rick Singleton said at a news conference Monday. Vicky and Casey White aren’t related.
The Lauderdale County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday that investigators talked with inmates at the jail and confirmed there was a “special relationship” between Vicky and Casey White. The specific nature of the relationship was not disclosed.
The case has drawn comparisons to a similar one from 2015, in which Joyce Mitchell, a former prison seamstress, helped prisoners Richard Matt and David Sweat escape from a correctional facility in Dannemora, New York. Mitchell, who was accused of having sexual contact with Matt, pleaded guilty to a contraband charge and was sentenced to up to seven years in prison. She was released early from her sentence in 2020.
Peter Dumas, who served as an attorney for Joyce Mitchell and her husband Lyle Mitchell, said that while it may not be a “popular opinion,” he believes jail and prison staff members can be manipulated by inmates in the way people are manipulated by scammers.
“That’s the kind of the spot that Joyce Mitchell was in,” he said.
Based on what authorities have said about Vicky White, her actions were “obviously something that’s not in keeping with her character,” Dumas said.
“It looks from everything that she was a model employee. So what’s causing this? Is there some sort of mental health issue? Is there some sort of undue influence?” he said.
Singleton has said Vicky White “was an exemplary employee” with 17 years of “an unblemished record, not a single negative thing in her personnel file.”
“She was admired and respected by her co-workers and her subordinates,” he said. “It’s just been a total shock.”
John McCulloch, a former Lauderdale County inmate who has known Vicky White for about 15 years, told NBC News that she was "loved" by everyone in the jail.
"She was trying to help everybody get out of there and get on the street," said McCulloch, who added that he was shocked by the news because White was a stickler for the rules. "I didn't think she’d go this far but, you know, she's doing all she can to help everybody in there."
Terry Pelz, a criminal justice lecturer with the University of Houston Downtown and former prison warden, said working long hours with proximity to inmates and staffing shortages could create opportunities for inappropriate relationships to form.
He said some inmates even seek out relationships with staff members or try to manipulate them into providing access to contraband or other favors.
Vicky White left the detention center Friday, purportedly to take Casey White for a mental health evaluation in court. But such an evaluation was never scheduled, Singleton said.
Surveillance video shows the two went straight to a shopping center, where the marked 2013 Ford Taurus patrol car they were traveling in was found. They never stopped at the courthouse.
“Obviously, there was no appearance here at the courthouse for him,” Singleton said.
White sold her home a few weeks ago and had been talking about retiring for three or four months to her co-workers, saying she was going to retire on May 1, he said.
Casey White was charged in September 2020 with two counts of capital murder in the stabbing of Connie Ridgeway, 58. At the time he was already in jail in connection with a 2015 home invasion, carjacking and police chase, according to the U.S. Marshals Service. He confessed to stabbing Ridgeway and was awaiting trial at the Lauderdale County Jail when he disappeared, according to the agency.
Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the relationship between Vicky and Casey White, Smith said the incident highlights some failures in jail conditions, specifically a culture that doesn’t take as seriously a relationship between a female employee and male inmate as it does that between a male employee and female inmate.
“I think that it really bears a harder look at what’s going on in the institution, and not only for prisoners, but also what’s going on for staff as well,” she said.
Such a relationship harms “the integrity of the system,” she said. “Because obviously, if this could occur, if the officer could pretty much walk out with the prisoner, then it speaks to a larger problem of the lack of safety in the institution, which should trouble us across the board,” she said.