How Common Are Prison Breaks?

With the recent escape of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman from the Altiplano Federal Maximum Security Prison in Mexico on Sunday as well as the lengthy saga of David Sweat and Richard Matt's prison break in the U.S., it seems as if inmates going AWOL has become the norm for both countries. How common are prison breaks, though? In the United States, it's hard to say primarily because the stats on inmate escapes are so incredibly widespread in terms of definition. The data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics counts everything from elaborate prison breaks like Matt and Sweat's to those who return late from transitional and community programs, their only distinction being whether they're considered AWOLs or escapes. Some states, including Alabama, further muddy the waters by applying neither designation when reporting such information. Thus, it appears that as many as 2,000 escapes a year occur nationally when in all actuality that number is incredibly high.

Prior to Matt and Sweat, the last high profile prison escape in the U.S. occurred last September and involved convicted Ohio shooter T.J. Lane, who was serving multiple life sentences for charges related to the murder of three high school students. According to police, Lane climbed and jumped over the fence of the Allen Oakwood Correctional Institution in Lima, Ohio. He was subsequently captured in just six hours later along with two other prisoners who had escaped with him.

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Mexico offers little in terms of data regarding prison escapes primarily because the country looks at jail breaks differently than the U.S. According to a 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning article about prison escapes in the country, it's not technically illegal to try to flee because the desire is simply human nature. "Mexico's legal system recognizes that all people have a fundamental desire to be free. And it does not punish them for pursuing it," surmised journalists Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan.

In addition to Guzman's escape, a smattering of high profile prison breaks have made international news from Mexico. Similar to Guzman's tactic of fleeing underground, in 2012 nearly 132 inmates escaped via a lighted tunnel from a facility in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, a border town across from Eagle Pass, Texas. Even more shocking was the escape of 53 prisoners from the Cieneguillas prison in the province of Zacatecas, all of whom walked right out the door with guards doing little, if anything, to stop them. The escape was caught on security footage, which was obtained by Mexican newspaper Reforma, though there have been little in terms of follow-ups regarding both cases. Given just how high-profile Guzman is, it is highly unlikely that a manhunt to capture him will yield so little in terms of press.

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