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Examining prison escapes and the routine activities theory.

On a late January evening in 2001, six inmates slipped out of the unlocked housing unit door of an 18-year-old, 1,300-bed maximum-security prison. Bright lights bathed the exterior grounds, but the nearest watch tower was unmanned and an intervening building blocked the view from the closest occupied tower. All six inmates were serving sentences of 25 years or more and three members of the group were serving life without parole for murder. Perimeter security included inner and outer 12-foot-high fences topped with razor wire, and a third, electrified fence between them. The electric fence was designed to deliver a 600-volt shock to anyone who touched it, followed by a lethal dose of 5,000 volts if someone continued to hold on or touched it again. As a final safeguard, a roving correctional officer circled the exterior perimeter in a vehicle.

The six inmates had drawn cards to determine who would be the one to initially breach the electric fence. They snipped a hole in the first fence with a pair of wire cutters stolen from a prison maintenance shop. Next, they propped up the electric fence using an insulating device constructed from contraband materials: two broom handles, covered in cloth and wrapped with duct tape. After sliding under the deadly fence, they lifted an unsecured bottom section of the third perimeter fence, shimmied underneath and stole a car parked near the prison. Local deputies spotted their stolen car and eventually apprehended them in an adjacent state two days later. Along the way, two of the escapees allegedly robbed a recreational vehicle park of $900 and assaulted the manager.

Despite an unprecedented level of modern prison construction in the closing decades of the 20th century and the development of increasingly sophisticated security technology, prison escapes are seemingly inexorable. Though relatively rare in comparison with other forms of inmate misconduct, recent findings suggest that about 3 percent of all inmates either escape or are absent without leave from prison at some time while serving their sentence and that, annually, about 1.4 percent of the correctional population either escapes or is absent without leave (Culp, in press). In 2001, for example, there was a total of 5,874 inmates who escaped from correctional facilities of all levels of security in the United States (Camp, 2003). Although the vast majority of these escapes are relatively benign incidents involving nonsecure facilities and nonviolent inmates, about 400 inmates manage to escape each year from prisons with a secure perimeter. While much attention has been paid to other forms of inmate misconduct, very little research has focused on prison escapes.

In reflecting on the incident described in the opening paragraph, it should come as no surprise that a clever human being with ample time to think about it could bypass the latest incarceration technology such as electric fences. In a correctional setting populated with potential escapees, dependent upon sophisticated and functioning security technology and staffed by rotating shifts of correctional officers of varying levels of skill and experience, the possibility of escapes is omnipresent. By looking at the interaction of these realities of prison life through the lens of routine activities theory, a better understanding can be gained of how and why escapes occur when they do.

Routine Activities Theory

Routine activities theory (Cohen and Felson, 1979) posits that crime occurs when three elements converge in time and place: a motivated offender, a suitable target and the absence of capable guardians. According to this perspective, all three elements must be present for a crime to occur; remove any one of the three elements and crime can be prevented. The patterns of behavior of offenders and guardians as they go about their daily routines and the characteristics of the physical environment in which they interact affect how frequently the three elements converge, and thus, how frequently crime occurs.

Although routine activities theory has been applied principally to studies of predatory crime and criminal victimization, the scope of the perspective has been extended over the years to include many behaviors where the "target" is not so clearly defined. Osgood et al. (1996) suggested that the perspective could help to explain all behaviors "that are disapproved by conventional normative standards and that typically provoke attempts at social control if detected by authority figures." In broadening their focus beyond crime, Osgood et al. included heavy alcohol use and dangerous driving by young adults as behaviors that were partially explicable within the routine activities perspective. Felson (1998) extended the model to include nonpredatory crimes, such as fights between two equally motivated combatants, and "victimless" crimes such as prostitution and gambling. In the correctional arena, Marquart et al. (2000) employed routine activities theory to help explain inmate assaults on correctional officers.

In the original formulation of the theory, "guardians" were generally viewed as individuals who keep an eye on potential targets of crime (Cohen and Felson, 1979). In a later formulation (Felson, 1995: Eck, 1994), the concept of guardianship was broadened to include "handlers," who directly supervise offenders, and "managers," who supervise the places where offenses are likely to occur. This newer specification of guardianship is well-suited to the study of inmate behavior where correctional officers are directly charged with "handling" offenders and noncustodial correctional facility staff help to provide overall "management" of the places where inmate rule infractions. including escapes, can occur.


Both the American Correctional Association (2002) and The Corrections Yearbook (Camp, 2003) track and publish annual counts of prison escapes in the United States. These databases provide aggregate, jurisdiction-level counts of how many inmates escape from custody, but not specific information on individual escapes. The Bureau of Justice Statistics manages the annual National Corrections Reporting Program, which provides information on all inmates entering and leaving prison each year, including whether inmates were on escape or AWOL (absent without leave) status at the time of their admission or departure. However, it is not possible to disaggregate the actual prison escapes from the more "garden variety" AWOLs. Although many state-level departments of correction maintain detailed information on prison escapes from their own facilities, there is no standardized, national system for recording, accessing or disseminating this information.

An alternative source of information is provided by archived news media accounts of prison escapes. News stories include detailed information, usually provided by correctional authorities at the time of the incident, about the dates and times of escapes, the number of inmates involved, escapee background, the means employed in escaping, whether anyone was injured in the course of the escape, behavior of staff during the incident, how soon escapees were captured, and other salient, qualitative information. Whereas the national correctional databases provide aggregate, jurisdiction-level data. the news media provide detailed narrative information on individual incidents.

This study began with a systematic search of the LexisNexis database and identification of all news-media-reported prison escapes from the 50 states during a complete calendar year (the year 2001 was selected for this study). LexisNexis is widely considered to be the most extensive database of news media narratives available to researchers (Simpson, 1993). After vetting duplicate stories, the initial search identified 183 escape incidents in correctional facilities for adults. This included detailed narrative accounts of 87 escapes from jail facilities and 96 individual prison escape incidents during 2001.

The Sample

A total of 127 inmates were involved in the 96 prison escape incidents reported by the news media in 2001. The escapes occurred in 37 different states and were regionally distributed as follows: West, 29.2 percent; South, 27.1 percent: Northeast, 25 percent; and Midwest, 18.8 percent. It is estimated that these 96 escape incidents comprise 15.5 percent of all prison escapes in the United States during 2001. The estimate was calculated by comparing the news media data from 2001 with the escape count recorded by The 2002 Corrections Yearbook (Camp. 2003) for the same time period. The Corrections Yearbook reported a total of 485 inmates escaping from low- and minimum security facilities, and 62 from medium- and high-security facilities in 2001, or a total of 547 escapees. The Corrections Yearbook tally disaggregates "walkaways" from work release centers and community residential facilities and "transit" escapes (escapes occurring during transport outside of the facility) from the overall total. The news media database, exclusive of walkaways and transit escapes. comprised 15.5 percent of the total number of escapes from correctional facilities reported by The Corrections Yearbook.


The Offender. Virtually all state-level departments of correction and the Federal Bureau of Prisons have developed classification systems to determine, among other things, who the potential escapees are, where inmates will be housed and what level of supervision and security they will receive (Austin, 2003). Responding in part to litigation that sought to make prison assignments more fair and based less upon the subjective impressions of corrections officials (Bench and Allen, 2003), the newest "objective" classification systems assign various "points" to inmates based on a set of factors believed to be correlated to prison adjustment problems (Berk et al., 2003), with the total points accrued determining an inmate's custody level. Among the many factors considered, a prior history of escape generally scores enough points to preclude placement in a minimum-security facility (Berk et al., 2003). Assessment of escape risk is heavily influenced by an inmate's history of escape, although the predictive capability of the factor has not been clearly established (Austin, 2003). And while the goals of classification have historically included identifying the most escape-prone inmates, the focus of classification research in recent years has been directed more at predicting in-prison misconduct by inmates (Bench and Allen, 2003) than inmate escape risk.

As a result, much of what is known about correlates of escape is based on research that is decidedly dated. Collectively, prior studies have constructed a profile of the average prison escapee as: young (Campbell, Porporino and Wevrick, 1985), with a prior history of escape (Anson and Hartnett, 1983), more likely to be a man than a woman (Chard-Wierschem, 1995), and white rather than black (Cowles, 1981; Murphy, 1984; Haisted, 1985). Escapees were more likely to be property offenders than violent offenders (Verlag, 1978: Murphy, 1984), with burglary the most common committing offense of escapees (Lyons, 1999).

However, the characteristics of escapees in 2001 vary from the picture painted by these earlier studies. Contrary to prior findings, current escapes do not differ from the general prison population by either age or gender. Escapees today are not particularly young: escapee age in 2001 charted a bimodal distribution, with similar peaks in the 20-24 and 35-39 age groups (see Figure 1). The age distribution of escapees is not statistically different from the age distribution of all inmates. Similarly, although escapees were primarily male (95.3 percent of escapees in the present study), their representation does not differ significantly from that of the correctional population as a whole. The racial background of inmates was impossible to calculate with the current sample, as the news media appear to follow a conscious policy of not reporting the race of inmates--race was reported in less than 10 percent of the news stories. However, other research suggests that blacks are now just as likely to escape from prison as whites (Culp, in press).


The news media provided information on a specific committing offense for 72 of the 127 escapees (57 percent). Burglary was reported to be the most common committing charge (22.2 percent) of escapees. This is consistent with Lyons' (2002) research finding of an over-representation of inmates convicted of burglary in the escapee population. However, although the literature on prison escapes suggests that property offenders are the most escape-prone inmates, the committing offense of escapees in 2001 is equally divided among property and violent offenders (see Table 1). In addition, while burglary is the most frequent committing offense of escapees, murder runs a close second. These data suggest that current escapees are less likely to be property offenders than was suggested by earlier research.

The present study also examined the number of inmates involved in each incident (see Table 2). Inmates are most likely to escape on their own (76 percent of incidents) or in pairs (19.8 percent of escapes). Escapes involving four or more inmates are rare, accounting for only 2 percent of the incidents. The largest number of inmates to escape in one incident during the year was six, and this happened only once.

The total count of 127 inmates in the 96 escape incidents yields a "per escape" average of 1.3 inmates. This finding is useful when interpreting the annual national counts of inmate escapes provided by ACA and The Corrections Yearbook. Dividing the total number of escapees by 1.3 provides a good estimate of the number of individual escape incidents. For example, the 5,874 total inmates recorded in The 2001 Corrections Yearbook escape count would translate to 4.518 escape incidents.

Although many classification systems include "time left to serve" as a predictor of institutional adjustment, studies suggest that this variable is not very reliable as a predictor of inmate behavior (Austin. 2003). Rationally, one would think that the longer the amount of time remaining to be served, the higher the risk of escape. Conversely, inmates with only a short time left to serve might be considered at low risk of escaping. However, rationality and reality are not necessarily congruent, or so the latest data suggest.

The news accounts provided information on the amount of time remaining on the sentence of half of the inmates who escaped during 2001 (see Table 3). Nearly one-third of escapees had from 25 years to life remaining on their sentence at the time of their escape. However. 28 percent had less than one year remaining and, cumulatively, 56 percent had four years or less to serve at the time of their escape. Although 56 percent had less than four years to serve at the time of their escape, only 30 percent of escapees were serving a sentence of four years or less, suggesting that many inmates had already worked off a substantial portion of their sentence prior to escaping. Considering that the length of time added to the sentence of a captured escapee averages about five years, these data suggest that prison escape is an impulsive rather than carefully planned act. This comports with findings of a study by the Centre for Research, Evaluation and Social Assessment (1996) in New Zealand that noted a key difference between inmate and prison staff perceptions of why escapes occurred: inmates attributed escapes to internal pressures such as boredom and depression, while prison staff members believed that external pressures involving family and personal relationships prompted most escapes. The researchers found that most escapes were spontaneous and poorly planned.

Time until capture provides additional evidence of the impulsivity of prison escape. Prior research suggests that among escapees from the more secure prisons, more than 92 percent are captured and returned to prison within a year of escaping (Culp, in press). Information on subsequent capture is provided on 73 of the 127 escapees in the current study (see Table 4). Despite the risks involved, the length of freedom gained by escaping inmates is short indeed. Among those inmates reported as captured, about 10 percent were free for less than one hour and, cumulatively, nearly 60 percent were captured within one day of escaping. About 80 percent of all captures occur within a week of the escape and 88 percent are captured within a month. The 2001 data support the view that prison escapes tend to be hastily planned, impulsive events.

The Target. Despite the availability and use of high-tech devices to improve inmate monitoring and enhance perimeter security, a review of actual escapes suggests that they tend to be decidedly low tech and mostly occur within the routine of regular prison activities.

Prison escapes were not more likely to occur during any particular month of the year or day of the week. Although there is slight variation, the differences are not statistically significant. The time of day of escapes charts a more uneven pattern. Escapes are most likely to occur in the busy morning or evening hours. The 6 a.m. to noon and the 6 p.m. to midnight time periods each accounted for 34.4 percent of the escapes, and 23 percent of escapes occurred in the afternoon hours. Only 8.2 percent of the escapes took place in the hours between midnight and dawn.

News media descriptions also suggest patterns in the methods used by inmates in escaping. One-fourth of the incidents involved absconding while outside the secure area of the prison such as when working on a maintenance crew or performing ranching and farming activities (see Table 5). Descriptions of escapes of this type included: "walked away from a work detail on the prison grounds," "was on a road crew working on prison grounds and disappeared. Stole a prison dump truck and abandoned it 2-3 miles away," "escaped while on job assignment outside of perimeter fence. He had an escape history," and "fled from the prison while on livestock duty."

Another quarter of the escapes involved breaching the secure perimeter in some low-tech way. As perimeter fences are typically outfitted with barbed or razor wire, hand scaling the fence often results in injury to the escapee. In one of the escapes involving two inmates, one of the escapees was caught while scaling the fence; the other made it over but was bleeding badly and a tracking dog quickly traced her to a nearby golf course. In an escape involving three inmates, one of the inmates was captured after getting tangled in the razor wire a top one of the fences. Another inmate used the proverbial bed sheet rope to clear a 40-foot-high perimeter fence. But the rope was too short; the inmate dropped about 20 feet to the ground, injured both ankles and then cut himself while crawling under a second fence before being subdued.

A slightly "higher tech" strategy involved employing objects from the prison to help scale the fence or to break through it. One inmate used a gurney to climb over the fence in the visiting area of the prison. Another inmate used wood from an inside construction project to scale the fence. A number of escapes involved inmates cutting through the chain-link fences with tools stolen from various shops in the prison. And in one of the more dramatic perimeter breaches, an inmate working in the kitchen area fled the building, stole a maintenance van and drove it at a high speed through the fence.

Prior research suggests that only a small fraction of prison escapes result in injuries to staff (Lillis, 1994) and the current study replicated this finding. During 2001, there were only three incidents involving inmates over-powering staff in the course of an escape from secure custody--4.3 percent of the escapes--and none of the incidents resulted in serious staff injury. In one incident, an inmate overpowered a correctional officer while on a work detail outside the secure perimeter, took the keys to the officer's truck and escaped. The inmate then kidnapped an off-duty correctional officer and his daughter, but released them unharmed. In another case, five juveniles serving time as adults overpowered two correctional officers and locked them in the control booth of a secure module. They then assaulted and subdued a third officer who was staffing the control room. The officer recovered and escaped the control room, freed the other two officers and the trio was able to apprehend four of the inmates. The fifth managed to unlock an exterior door and escape. In the third incident, a group of four inmates tied up a maintenance worker in the prison chapel, stabbed another inmate who was working with him, stole the keys to a maintenance cart, drove to the fence and used wood planks to climb the barbed wire fence. A correctional officer in a nearby tower fired two shots at the group and three of the inmates halted. The third inmate made it over the fence but was injured in the process and was quickly apprehended.

Ten of the escapes from secure facilities occurred while inmates were being transported to or from the secure perimeter of prison facilities. These transport, or transit, escapes are the most likely to involve injuries to staff and civilians. In one of the more dramatic episodes during 2001, an inmate being transported to court attacked his lone escort while en route. The officer lost control of the car, collided with another vehicle and flipped over, injuring the deputy and the other driver. The inmate then stole the deputy's handgun and keys, unlocked his shackles and managed to escape to the apartment of a friend where he was apprehended a few hours later.

In another incident, two unarmed correctional officers were escorting an inmate from a dental appointment when the inmate's brother accosted them outside the dental office. The brother pulled a handgun, overpowered the officers and freed his brother from his handcuffs. The inmate took the handgun, locked the officer in the rear of the prison van and drove off while his brother followed in a pickup truck. In an ensuing chase, police flattened the van's tires with a spike belt. As they closed in on the disabled van, the escapee used the handgun to take his own life.

Four of the escapes during 2001 involved inmates hiding in vehicles authorized to be inside the secure perimeter. One inmate crawled into an 18-wheel tractor-trailer parked inside the prison and cut his way out of the truck once it left the facility. Another inmate hid in a delivery truck within piles of empty milk crates that were then shrink-wrapped together by other inmate-workers. In the third incident, two inmates hid in a mail cart being hauled by truck to a post office. While en route, the two overpowered the driver, stole two other vehicles and held two citizens hostage before they were finally apprehended. And in the fourth incident, a hapless inmate hid in a garbage bin that was subsequently emptied into a garbage truck making a collection inside the prison. The escapee was crushed to death by the truck's hydraulic compactor.

Escapes involving sophisticated planning and deception are the exception rather than the rule. In one such incident, an inmate managed to steal a correctional officer's uniform while working as a clerk. He changed into the uniform and proceeded to walk through the visitor's station shortly after a shift change. The inmate pretended to clock out, was buzzed through the main gate and began running through the parking lot. A watch tower officer, suspicious of a man running through the parking lot, called the visitor's station to ask about the sprinter's identity. The officer in the visitor's station assured the officer in the tower that the man was an infirmary worker. Hours later, a correctional officer returning home noticed the inmate walking on the side of the road, notified the authorities and the escapee was arrested. In another incident, a 64-year-old inmate serving a life sentence for murder was being held in a prison geriatric unit. Using a cell phone smuggled into the prison by his daughter, the inmate coordinated the timing of his escape, including making arrangements to pay an accomplice $5,000 to pick him up on the road near the prison. But these relatively sophisticated escapes are a distinct minority (about 3 percent of escapes), as the vast majority of escapes lack such elaborate planning.

The Guardians. The news media narratives help to illustrate the contributing role played by prison "guardians" in some prison escapes. In the tripartite scheme discussed earlier, "guardians who monitor targets," would include those staff assigned to actively monitor the perimeter and alarm systems attached to it. In the prison escape described in the introduction, the ability of the inmates to bypass three fences, including a lethal electric fence, was facilitated by an absence of guardians in the nearest watch tower who might have otherwise observed unsupervised inmates approaching the perimeter. The fences were also equipped with motion detectors, and movement by the escapees should have signaled an alarm. Either the alarm malfunctioned or the guardian manning the perimeter security control panel was not paying attention. Additionally, the bottom of the third fence was not secured properly, a situation that should have been corrected by a guardian responsible for maintenance of the fence.

Correctional officers fulfill the primary role of "handlers who monitor offenders." In several of the escapes in 2001, inmates took advantage of temporary confusion surrounding the movement of inmates or subtle lapses in security during staff shift changes in order to make a break. In two instances, inmates were able to elude their handlers in the shuffle of large groups of inmates returning from recreation. Some lapses involved simple failure of correctional officers to follow post orders such as thoroughly checking inmate and staff identification. In one escape, an inmate swapped a plastic identification bracelet with the one worn by his cellmate and managed to escape from the prison infirmary. In another case, cited earlier, an inmate wearing a stolen correctional officer's clothing boldly walked through several layers of security without being thoroughly checked.

Arguably, the most egregious breakdowns in "handler" guardianship involve active complicity between correctional staff and inmates. Although there were no media-reported incidents of complicity in the 2001 prison escapes, one of the jail escapes during 2001 included payment of a $10,000 bribe to a staff member who subsequently allowed two inmates to escape. Marquart, Barnhill and Balshaw-Biddle (2001), in a study of inappropriate personal relationships between inmates and correctional staff, noted that serious rule violations were most common among new staff and occurred in situations where staff supervision was minimal. While rare, incidents involving staff complicity in escape do occur, but are likely avoided through staff training and competent supervision.

Finally, "managers who monitor places," including the administrative, physical plant, professional and clerical personnel, may unwittingly facilitate escapes. The most common contributing factor involved improper accounting for tools, which inmates were able to steal and use to cut through chain-link fencing. This scenario was repeated several times during 2001. Similarly, shoddy attention to facility maintenance by managers was a contributing factor in several escapes. In one incident, an inmate escaped by scaling a section of the perimeter where only one row of fence was functioning, the others being down for maintenance. In another escape, an inmate left through a broken kitchen door and then used a wooden pallet to scale a razor wire fence. The kitchen door should have been repaired and materials either put away or secured.

"Managers" also play an important role in prison security by observing and reporting suspicious activity directly to other guardians. In the infamous "Texas Seven" escape of December 2000, a group of inmates overpowered several maintenance staff, bound and gagged them, and took control of the maintenance department warehouse. After the takeover, but prior to the actual escape, a recreational staff member came into the maintenance department to pick up a toolbox. The staff member noticed that the group of inmates in the warehouse was unsupervised. Nonetheless, he signed a logbook (provided by one of the inmates), took the toolbox and left the warehouse without notifying security staff of what he had observed (Gomez, 2000). In prisons, "it's not my job" complacency can and does facilitate escapes.

Summarizing the Data

Routine activities theory provides a useful perspective for examining and explaining escapes from secure custody. Escapes occur when a "perfect storm" of events--a motivated offender, a suitable target and the absence of capable guardians--converge in time and place. Newer formulations of routine activities theory, particularly the tripartite specification of guardianship, are well-tailored for the study of inmate misconduct.

The study found news media archives to be a useful alternative to correctional databases, which are unfortunately bereft of detailed information on prison escape incidents. On the whole, the news media covered about 15 percent of all prison escapes from secure prisons during 2001. The typical age, gender and committing offenses of inmates involved in recent prison escapes were found to differ notably from the findings of earlier studies. Inmates typically escape alone or in pairs and tend to do so with little planning. Only a small fraction of prison escapes (4.3 percent) involve violence directed at staff. However, escapees are frequently injured in the course of escaping, sometimes fatally. Escape appears to be a largely impulsive act and, though it is used in many prison classification instruments, "time left to serve" does not appear to be a reliable predictor of escape risk.

The most common scenarios of prison escape involved escapes from nonsecure areas of prisons, scaling or cutting of perimeter fences, and escapes while being transported outside of the facility. For escapes from within secure facilities, the most common contributing factors included shoddy tool control, poor maintenance, leaving items that could be used as ladders unsecured, and laxity in checking staff and inmate identification.
Table 1. Committing Offense of Escapees (n = 72)

 # %

Murder 15 20.8
Robbery and Assault 9 12.5
Sex Offenders 4 5.6
Other Violence 3 4.2

Total Violence 31 43.1


Burglary 16 22.2
Theft/Larceny 10 13.9
Fraud 3 4.2
Other Property 3 4.2

Total Property 32 44.5

Drugs 9 12.5

Total Drugs 9 12.5

Table 2. Number of Inmates Involved
In Each Escape


1 76.0 76.0
2 19.8 95.8
3 2.1 97.9
4 1.0 99.0
5+ 1.0 100.0

Table 3. Original and Remaining Sentence
Of Escapees


25 years to life 20 31.3
10 to 25 years 3 4.7
5 to 9 years 5 7.8
1 to 4 years 18 28.1
Less than 1 year 18 28.1


25 years to life 25 33.3
10 to 25 years 16 21.3
5 to 9 years 11 14.7
1 to 4 years 18 24.0
Less than 1 year 5 6.7

Table 4. Time Until Capture
(captured escapees only)


Within 1 hour 7 9.6 9.6
Within 1 day 36 49.3 58.9
Within 1 week 15 20.5 79.4
Within 1 month 6 8.2 87.6

Table 5. Method Employed in Escaping

Method of Escape Frequency Percentage

Nonsecure area/assignment 18 25.7
Cut or sealed perimeter 17 24.3
Escape from transport 10 14.3
Overpowered staff 3 4.3
Hid in vehicle 4 5.7
Sophisticated planning
 deception 2 2.9
Not reported 16 22.8

Total 70 100

Authors' Note: This work was supported (in part) by a grant from the City University of New York PSC-CUNY Research Award Program.


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Richard F. Culp, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Elizabeth Bracco is a graduate student in criminal justice at John Jay College.
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Author:Culp, Richard F.; Bracco, Elizabeth
Publication:Corrections Compendium
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Date:May 1, 2005
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