Fear and a frantic national search followed the escape last month of a pair of armed robbers who allegedly killed two correctional officers along a rural stretch of highway in Putnam County.
Prison breaks are often the stuff of Hollywood movies. But how often do convicts actually get loose?
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of data found that Georgia has recorded hundreds of inmate “escapes” in the past seven years. But few of them spur the kind of national dragnet that Ricky Dubose and Donnie Russell Rowe’s short-lived bid for freedom did. In fact, most are inmates on the verge of being released who simply walk away, records show. And more than half are back behind bars within days.
Since 2009, the state Department of Corrections has listed more than 800 “escapes.” Nearly 90 percent involved inmates assigned to halfway houses as they prepared for release from state custody. In some instances, they don’t return from work or some other appointment.
“There’s not a lot we can do,” said Ricky Myrick, who oversees the operation of all of the Georgia Department of Corrections facilities. “It’s a calculated risk when we send them (to a halfway house or transition center). … It’s an opportunity for this individual to slowly ease back into society. The bad part is when they get out in the real world … they get around the same stuff that got them in trouble in the first place.”
Dubose and Rowe represent the worst-case scenario. They allegedly gunned down correctional officers Christopher Monica and Curtis Billue with the guards’ own 9 mm Glocks aboard a prison transport bus, then fled in a Honda Civic they carjacked. The fugitives were captured roughly 60 hours later in Tennessee after authorities said they held an elderly couple hostage for three hours and then led troopers on a high-speed chase with bullets flying. They eventually surrendered to a citizen after crashing a stolen Jeep.
But a more typical example is Dennis Zachery Carlyle. Sentenced to seven years for robbery, Caryle escaped from the Atlanta Transitional Center on Ponce de Leon Avenue a year before he was scheduled to be paroled. The 23-year-old fugitive was picked up the next day at an East Point package store with no reports that he harmed anyone.
All three are among the 826 escapes the state has recorded since Jan. 1, 2009.
“They have to look into their procedures and protocols if they have that many people walking away from a halfway house or not returning (from an approved leave),” said Kevin Tamez, a former federal agent and now a consultant.
‘They just screwed up’
Myrick said recaptured inmates have explained they went to see a girlfriend or visit friends, and lost track of time. And then they were afraid to come back to face the consequences — as much as 10 more years in custody and reassignment to a prison.
“Mostly it boils down to ‘I got drunk’ or ‘I got high and I got scared and didn’t want to come back,’ or ‘I got upset with my girlfriend and got scared.’ It’s rare one just runs off,” Myrick said.
He said an inmate is considered a fugitive — and a warrant issued — if eight hours have passed since the time they were scheduled to return.
Tamez said he suspects many escaped inmates planned to return to their respective transition centers, but then it got late. “Who’s going to be stupid enough to get put back behind the fence?” Tamez said. “They just screwed up.”
Even though many were convicted of violent crimes, by the time they are assigned to a transition center they are no longer considered a threat to society.
“They’re going to be living beside you sooner or later,” Myrick said, adding that it was “best” to ease those inmates back into society.
“On one hand, we think these are good programs,” said Martin Horn, a professor of corrections at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. “(Inmates) get to find work and get int0 a routine of civilian life. But there are risks, and we’re never going to eliminate risks.”
State data shows that 717 Georgia inmates have escaped from transitional centers since 2009. Another 84 have escaped from state prisons, such as Rogers State Prison, where the DOC operates a massive farm in Tattnall County that depends on inmate labor. The rest came from lower-security lockups such as probation detention centers and county work camps where state prisoners are housed so they can provide labor for local governments.
Tamez said “99.9 percent of time” a prison escape can be attributed to “simple complacency” on the part of the correctional officers watching those inmates. Prisoners are always watching, looking for opportunities, Tamez said.
Consider Jamie Bernard Worthy and Eugene Spearman, both of whom escaped from transition centers twice — Worthy in 2010 and 2016 and Spearman in 2012 both times; once he was out for three days. Worthy was paroled in February. Spearman, whose sentence runs until March 2022, is at the Coffee Correctional Facility, awaiting a decision on parole.
The AJC based its reporting on warrant logs provided by the DOC in response to an open records request.
But there were some issues with the information provided. The AJC found several instances in which the date an inmate was recorded as being recaptured was prior to the date they allegedly escaped. There were also dozens of instances in which the logs did not include a date for recapture, yet the agency’s online records showed the inmate back in prison or even paroled.
There were 36 inmates listed as escaped but with no record of recapture either in the records provided or in news accounts.
‘Ready to be integrated’
Escapes like the one in Putnam County on June 13 are “rare,” said Keramet Reiter, assistant professor of criminology, law, and law and society at the University of California at Berkeley. “What it takes to get into a halfway facility is usually an incredibly clean disciplinary record. A lot of times the prisoner may be going before a parole board and proving they are ready to be integrated into society.”
Out of 746 cases in which a recorded escape date and a recaptured date were chronologically logical, more than a quarter were caught the same day. More than half were back in custody within three days. Only 27 percent of those who escaped were free for more than a few months.
» James Beggett, now 66, had served 35 years of a life sentence for a 1981 murder in Chatham County when he went to work on Jan. 26, 2016. He didn’t return to the Charles D. Hudson Transition Center in LaGrange after his shift. The U.S. Marshals Service fugitive task force captured him a week later at an Alabama truck stop. He is now at Dooly State Prison.
» Phil Mincey escaped from the Macon Transition Center in 2011 and was caught five days later. He is serving a life sentence for a Dodge County murder conviction at Wheeler Correctional Facility.
» Darrell Hall, sentenced to life for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, escaped from the Clayton Transition Center in May 2010 but was recaptured the next day. He was paroled in 2015.
Just 18 escaped inmates were still free a year later, records show.
And those who end up back behind bars have years — sometimes decades — tacked onto their sentences.
Consider Johnny Cooper Jr., who was convicted of 1965 car thefts in Habersham and Miller counties. According to the Department of Corrections, he escaped twice. DOC records show he escaped for the second time on Nov. 14, 1965, 15 months into his three-year sentence. Years later he was convicted in Washington and, while there, the time on his Georgia punishment was allowed to run simultaneously with the Washington sentence. According to DOC records, Cooper would have served his entire Georgia sentence on Oct. 18, 1979, had he not escaped. The now-69-year-old man was released from prison in April 2016.
The Department of Corrections would not allow interviews with the inmates who escaped. The Department of Community Supervision would not provide any contact information on the former fugitives who have since been paroled and they could not be otherwise located.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.