Dummies in beds, unlocked doors: Justice IG finds security lapses at federal prison camps raise escape risk

A Federal Bureau of Federal Prisons truck drives past barbed wire fences at the Federal Medical Center prison in Fort Worth, Texas, on May 16. Hundreds of inmates inside the facility have tested positive for COVID-19 and several inmates have died with numbers expected to rise. (Photo: LM Otero/Associated Press)

Lapses at low-security federal prison camps are raising the risk of inmate escapes and contributed to a break out of four offenders from a Texas facility where their absence went undetected for at least 12 hours, an internal Justice Department review found.

A memorandum issued Monday by Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz said “multiple” escape investigations have found unlocked doors, malfunctioning alarms, no surveillance cameras and some old-fashioned deception by inmates.

“We were told that inmates sometimes place dummies in their beds or physically place themselves in other inmate beds during inmate counts,” the inspector general’s report stated. “We found that unsecured doors allow inmates to move freely within the (camps) even when they were not permitted to do so and, thus, make it easier for them to both pose as other inmates during counts and escape…”

The inspector general said prison policy discouraging officers from shining “excessive light” into inmates’ cells during overnight counts may have helped offenders avoid detection when they escape.

Investigators highlighted the case of four inmates who escaped from a prison camp in Beaumont, Texas, and went undetected for more than 12 hours despite three overnight prisoner counts.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons may decide to let inmates who have a short time left on their sentence to serve it at home. (Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP)

“The evidence showed that the inmates who escaped may have had other inmates pose as them or placed dummies in their beds to deceive correctional officers during the nighttime counts; and… the evidence showed that the correctional officers likely complied with BOP and FCC Beaumont (excessive light) policy when conducting the nighttime counts,” the inspector general found.

The report did not make reference to the timing of the escape, but court records show that four inmates from the same facility were arrested Oct. 11, 2019, after local authorities were tipped to the breakout.

According to an account of the incident offered during the sentencing of one of the offenders, the four inmates had set out to a nearby location where cache of mobile phones and whiskey had been left for pickup.

“Law enforcement officers surrounded the area in concealed locations and within several hours observed four inmates approaching on foot,” prosecutors said. “All four inmates were apprehended after attempting to flee and detained.  A search of the inmates revealed several cellular telephones and a bottle of whisky.”

Following the 2020 sentencing of one of the inmates, then-U.S. Attorney Stephen Cox referred to a spate of such escapes.

“These prison escapes have plagued Jefferson County (Texas) for a long time,” Cox said. “They are unacceptable, and we are committed to working with BOP to better secure the prison. “In the meantime, federal prison inmates are on notice that if they escape from prison, they will be caught and prosecuted and will spend additional time in a higher security prison.”

Escape risks have not been confined to low and minimum security federal prisons. USA TODAY reported in 2017 that guard towers at some of the federal system’s largest facilities had been vacant because of persistent officer shortages.

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