In Texas, Jailbreaks Aren't Like the Movies. Usually.

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Detention officer watches over inmates from a control room inside the Harris County Jail.
Detention officer watches over inmates from a control room inside the Harris County Jail.

Robert Dudley and Rickey Taylor wanted out of the Ector County Jail, apparently quite badly. Twice this year, using makeshift digging tools and squeezing through dark tunnels inside the jail in Odessa, they nearly succeeded, taking advantage of weaknesses in the West Texas facility.

“I’ve been sheriff 10 years, and until this happened, we hadn’t had anything like that,” said Sheriff Mark Donaldson of Ector County.

Though a favorite plot device on television and in movies, jailbreaks are fairly rare, and at county lockups in Texas successful escapes are even rarer. In the last five years, sheriffs in about 140 counties reported nearly 270 escape incidents, according to records obtained from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards under the state’s open records laws. Nearly 70,000 inmates cycle in and out of county jails each month.

Many of the inmates were recaptured within hours, though some managed to elude the authorities for days or even months. Two died trying to escape. Four of the inmates — all Mexicans who officials suspect fled across the border — have never been recaptured.

“They’ve got nothing but time on their hands,” said Adan Muñoz Jr., executive director of the jail commission and a former sheriff. “If somebody knows they face the possibility of being locked up for many years, then in their mind they’ve got nothing else to lose.”

Jails with larger inmate populations saw the largest number of escape attempts. The Dallas County Jail reported eight, and Harris County reported seven. Each facility houses thousands of inmates daily, and most of the escape attempts occurred when officers were moving inmates from one place to another outside the secure housing units. Lt. Ronny Taylor, at the Harris County Jail, said inmates often try to escape when they go to a medical facility or a work site, for example. One inmate, he said, recently tried to jump from the back of a work truck just days before the end of his sentence. Another tried to catch a ride at a hospital.

“If they see any chance to break for freedom, they will,” Taylor said.

Some smaller facilities, though, reported as many escape incidents as the larger ones. Wichita County Jail, which can house up to 625 inmates, reported eight escapes in the last five years — as many as the Dallas County Jail. Half occurred on the same day in August when four inmates, according to local news reports, bent back the bars in their cells and made their way into an air-conditioning vent, up onto the roof and out of the jail.

It is often the case in county jails, Muñoz said, that a facility can go for years without incident, and then several occur in a row when inmates discover a weakness in security or work together on a plan. “It’s basically the inmate against the officer plotting and conniving their ways to get out of jail,” Muñoz said. Often, he said, escapes are the result of errors by jail staff members, when officers fail to check inmates as regularly as required or simply let down their guard.

Just about all of those things went wrong in Ector County this year. In the last five years, the facility, which can house up to 667 inmates, reported seven escapes. Five occurred on two separate occasions in January and March.

Three inmates, including Dudley and Taylor, plotted out their escape, carefully observing officers’ routines to identify chinks in the security and scouting potential weaknesses in the small jail’s structure.

The inmates — Dudley and Russell Rice were charged with aggravated robbery and Taylor with murder — figured out how to unlock their cell doors. They also noticed that jail guards had a habit of leaving vestibule doors open. And they found an unlocked entrance to a crawl space behind the walls. Over a period of time — the sheriff was unsure how long they worked on the plan — the three snuck out of their cells, slipping through the vestibule and climbing through the crawl space up to the ceiling, where they dug a hole to the outside.

On Jan. 29, they made their break, climbing over the roof and out to freedom. Dudley and Rice were caught within hours and returned to the jail. The police tracked down Taylor at his girlfriend’s apartment the next morning and retrieved him, too.

Undeterred, Dudley and Taylor hatched another scheme. They used pieces of metal to pry back showerheads in their cells. Using half of a hacksaw blade that the police say Taylor’s girlfriend mailed into the facility, the two sawed through rebar behind the walls and on March 5 made their way out the side of the building. The police found them hours later at a hotel. “They weren’t very far away,” Donaldson said. “They’re not exactly rocket scientists.”

Following the escapes, the jail commission issued Ector County a certificate of noncompliance and visited the jail to ensure it was meeting standards. Donaldson said he had worked to fix the problems that allowed the escapes. Jailers have been instructed to conduct and document regular face-to-face contact with inmates and to properly lock all the doors. Pieces of metal that could be used to damage structures and to aid in escapes have been removed. Inmate mail is examined more thoroughly. Now, the jail is back in compliance.

But Donaldson said one problem persists that is an obstacle in nearly all small, rural jails like his. “We’re shorthanded, like nearly every other jail in the state of Texas,” he said.

Michele Deitch, a jail conditions expert and professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, said the most worrisome types of escapes are those like Ector County’s, in which high-risk inmates breach the secure perimeter. A large number of escapes relative to a facility’s size can indicate staff problems, Deitch said.

“You’ve got to be concerned about inexperienced staff, staff turnover, lack of training of staff,” she said. “All of those are going to contribute to a less secure facility.”

This year, the jail commission will begin developing processes to track data on jail staff turnover for the first time, using it as one of several factors to help identify at-risk facilities. But Muñoz said the relatively low number of escapes from county jails means Texans should be confident that sheriffs are doing all they can to keep criminals behind bars.

“Not a single jail out there in this state wants an escape on their watch,” he said. “These escapes occur because of the ingenuity, the preying on detention officers by inmates with time on their hands.”

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