Pennsylvania County Jails Face Unprecedented Wave of Prison Breaks


The breakout of a previously convicted murderer from a Chester County correctional institution in late August was not an isolated incident. Pennsylvania has experienced a string of similar events from various county-run jails in recent months.

In May, for instance, there was a comparable occurrence at the same establishment, closely followed by a double escape incident at a Philadelphia jail facilitated by a hole in the recreational yard fence. The following month, an inmate managed to flee from an exercise room in the Warren County jail located in the northwestern region of the state.

All these events highlight a compelling issue – jail escapes from county-managed facilities. Don Hummer, a seasoned associate professor of criminal justice at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg, pointed out that county jails run a distinctive system compared to bigger state prison facilities. “State prisons enforce strict organizational culture, while county jails operate diversely since procedures differ vastly from county to county,” Hummer explained.

Despite the unprecedented number of jailbreaks in Pennsylvania this year, gauging such numbers against other states remains an uphill task due to the absence of a centralized database that accurately records correctional facility escapes in the US. However, escape incidents are predominantly scarce. Jordan Hyatt, an associate professor of criminology at Drexel University, opined that this reoccurring issue is a distinct county-level conundrum within Pennsylvania, as evidence by the absence of similar records from state-run facilities.

Taking a deeper look into the escape scenarios reveals intricate details of each operation. The latest escape involving a 34-year-old murderer named Danelo Cavalcante, who was convicted for the 2021 murder of his ex-girlfriend, has been particularly substantial. Cavalcante managed to break free from Chester County Prison on August 31, only to be traced and recaptured two weeks later. His escape was ingenious: he scaled the walls to the roof by ‘crab-walking’, then negotiated razor-wire and another fence without being detected by either the watchtower guard or the in-house surveillance system. A similar technique had been employed by another inmate for a short-lived escape from the same facility in May.

Within the same month, two more inmates, Ameen Hurst and Nasir Grant, slipped out of Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Facility through a deliberately cut hole in the recreational yard fence. In the following months, Michael Burham managed a swift escape from Warren County jail, where he was held for an arson and burglary case, by swiftly scaling the roof using a sheet-rope.

An analysis reveals that the two types of correctional centers, jails and prisons, are unique in their operational functionality. While jails maintain county-level management and predominantly hold short-term prisoners, state or federal authorities operate prisons which house long-term convicts. However, despite their differences, these correctional facilities share common issues, such as staff shortages, particularly at county jails.

Regardless of these recent jailbreak instances, Hummer maintains that county jails do not necessarily require significant changes in their operations as such incidents are rarely witnessed. However, he recommends continuous security reviews to identify and address potential security weaknesses.


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