29 prisoners have escaped from federal lockups in the last 18 months

Federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind.
A “No Trespassing” sign stands outside the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Ind. All of the escapes happened at minimum-security prisons, some of which don’t even have fences.
(Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

Over the past 18 months, 29 prisoners have escaped from federal lockups across the U.S. — and nearly half still have not been caught. At some of the institutions, doors are left unlocked, security cameras are broken and officials sometimes don’t notice someone is missing for hours.

At one Texas lockup, security is so lax that local law enforcement officials privately joke about its seemingly “open-door policy.”

Prisoners have broken out at lockups in nearly every region of the country. Twelve of the inmates who escaped in 2020 — from prisons in California, Florida, Louisiana, Texas and Colorado — remain at large. Two others who escaped since January this year have also not yet been caught. Their crimes include racketeering, wire fraud, bank robbery, possession of methamphetamine and possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and other drugs.


All of the escapes happened at minimum-security federal prison camps, some of which don’t even have fences, and house inmates whom the Bureau of Prisons considers to be the lowest security risk.

“Anybody can escape from any camp any minute of any day,” said Jack Donson, a prison consultant and former case manager at a federal prison in Otisville, N.Y. “They’re not secure facilities. They have no fence, no metal detectors.”

The numbers raise serious concerns that the agency, which has long been besieged by chronic mismanagement, misconduct and a severe staffing crisis — is failing in its most basic function: keeping prisoners in prison. While a Justice Department budget report submitted to Congress said the Bureau of Prisons had no escapes from secure facilities, it does not count those who escape from minimum-security prisons or camps.

All but one of the escapees, who officials said used a homemade rope to escape, is facing charges for violent felonies, including murder.

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Federal officials often refer to them as “walkaways,” though it is still an escape from federal prison under the law, and law-enforcement officials say there is still a risk to the community when an inmate escapes.

Federal prison camps were originally designed with low security to make operations easier and to allow inmates tasked with performing work at the prison, such as landscaping and maintenance, to avoid repeatedly checking in and out of a main prison facility. But the lax security has now not only opened a gateway for contraband but is also the source of most of the prison system’s escapes.

Aside from Texas escapees, law-enforcement officials have also learned of inmates at the prison routinely walking off the grounds to retrieve drugs and other contraband dropped off in the woods and then bringing the illegal items back inside with them.


It has become routine at FCI Beaumont for cars to drop drugs, cellphones and other contraband in the woods, leaving them for inmates to break out of the prison at night and pick up the items before sneaking back inside, according to a law-enforcement official familiar with the matter. The official could not discuss the investigations publicly and spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

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The Texas escapes have attracted the attention of the Justice Department’s inspector general. The office issued a memorandum this week highlighting glaring security gaps at Beaumont and other federal prison camps.

In one case, four inmates sneaked out and went undetected for more than 12 hours even though prison officials conducted three inmate counts overnight during the 12-hour period, according to an inspector general’s report. The inmates put dummies in their beds to trick the officers, the report said.

In a statement, the Bureau of Prisons said that it strives to ensure safety and security at all its facilities and that when an inmate “walks away” from a prison, officials will notify other law-enforcement agencies and the media. The agency stressed that the inmates who are placed at the minimum-security camps are the lowest-risk offenders who “pose minimal risk to the community” and generally are allowed to participate in outdoor work programs and other initiatives.

“The BOP remains vigilant in its efforts to maintain safe and secure institutions at all times,” the agency said. Officials said a review is conducted following every escape to determine “if any security weakness exists and, if warranted, corrective actions are taken.”