Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
For more information about Jo, check out her Linked-in profile, as well as her Facebook fan page, Instagram and Google+
Monday, July 28, 2014
After stabbing, Bucks reconsiders giving escapees a second chance
Posted: Tuesday, July 22, 2014
A prior escape doesn’t automatically disqualify an inmate from Bucks County’s minimum security program, which is intended to help them transition back into the community, according to the county’s director of prison operations.
But the longstanding second-chance policy, virtually nonexistent in neighboring Montgomery County, has come under scrutiny following the June 10 stabbing of a Bensalem police officer attempting to arrest an AWOL work release inmate.
County officials are seeking more information about how the program operates and how often inmates go missing.
The Bensalem officer was not seriously injured in the stabbing attack. The suspect, Matthew Miller, 23, of Bensalem, is charged with criminal attempted homicide and related charges, as well as escape. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
Matthew Miller after he allegedly stabbed a cop
The day after the stabbing, Prison Oversight Board members grilled prison Director William Plantier about the frequency of walkaway escapes. Bucks County Commissioner Chairman Robert Loughery, who sits on the oversight board, didn’t attend that meeting, but said a review will be done on prison policy as well as an evaluation of offender qualification for the program.
“We are certainly concerned about what happened,” he said.
Board Chairman and county Sheriff Duke Donnelly supports work release programs and believes the county’s program runs “pretty smooth.” But he doesn’t understand why policy allowed Miller back into the work release program given his 2011 escape conviction.
“He shouldn’t have been sent there,” Donnelly said. “If you walk away once and go back to the prison, you don’t go back there.”
That’s the way it is Montgomery County, where a prior escape would make an inmate ineligible for future participation in either a minimum security prison program except under a “very, very rare” circumstance, Montgomery County spokesman Frank Custer said.
After Miller’s arrest, it was revealed Bucks County averages one to two inmates a month disappearing without permission from minimum security Bucks County Community Corrections.
So far this year, nine Community Corrections participants have gone missing — four in June. A 10th inmate turned himself in two hours after going missing and was disciplined internally, a county official said. No inmates have been reported missing since June 25, county spokesman Chris Edwards said.
But four of the escapees remain at large including one missing since February. The men have been convicted on charges such as drug, theft and simple assault, according to county records and the prison.
Recent court records indicate generally fewer than 10 percent of Community Corrections inmates walk away without permission. The overall number of escapes has dropped over the past five years, according to data compiled by the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.
In 2009-10, 20 people were charged with escape from an unsecured facility out of the district court overseen by Judge Mark Douple, which has jurisdiction over the community corrections unit. The number dropped to nine in 2012-13, but increased to 13 during the most recent fiscal year, which ended May 31, according to AOPC data.
Roughly 300 inmates were housed in the Community Corrections unit in May, and about 76 were approved for work release, which allows them to earn money while serving their sentences, according to county officials.
“Work release is important to reintegrate people into the community and help them pay off fines,” Plantier said. “It’s very poor corrections if you keep them in a maximum security environment for two years and then throw them out on the street. You’ll see much higher rates of recidivism.”
At an average of 148 participants, neighboring Montgomery County’s Community Corrections program is half the size of Bucks County’s. Its inmate participants are required to sign acknowledgements that they are aware of the rules and regulations for community corrections and work release, county spokesman Frank Custer said.
Last year, Montgomery County had eight Community Corrections or work release walkaways, two fewer than what Bucks County reported in 2013. All eight either returned on their own or were captured, Custer said. So far this year, only three Montgomery County inmates have gone AWOL; one returned within 48 hours, one was caught and another remains missing.
When an inmate walks away from Community Corrections in Bucks County, there is no rush to file an arrest warrant though law enforcement is notified immediately through all-points bulletins about missing inmates, Plantier said.
“We’ve never, as a correctional system, gone crazy trying to chase after them,” Plantier said.
In Miller’s case, the prison filed an arrest warrant charging him with escape three days after he was reported missing, according to online court records. The Bensalem police department said in court documents it was alerted Miller was wanted for escape less than an hour before the confrontation with the police officer.
Miller was the first inmate with a prior escape from Community Corrections to walk away a second time in the three years that Plantier has been prison director, the director said.
NUISANCE VS. THREAT
The unit provides a far more relaxed environment than the county jail, Plantier said. Doors are not locked. The property isn’t fenced in. Inmates live in dorm-style housing. They work on the premises, hold jobs in the community or perform community service. There are mandatory daily drug tests, and random inmate counts are conducted at least seven times a day.
Participating inmates must be approved by the court as well as screened by the prison for behavior, mental health and criminal history to make sure they are considered low-risk offenders, Plantier said. The risk assessment looks at the sentence imposed, violence of the crime, prior incarceration and classifies an inmate as maximum, medium or minimum security, he said.
Generally, Community Corrections participants have been convicted of crimes such as drug possession, DUI or parole and probation violations.
The “borderline” cases — which Matthew Miller was considered, Plantier said — require a second-level of review before being considered for the Community Corrections unit. That review is done by the deputy warden, a case manager and community corrections manager, Plantier said.
These would include inmates with misconducts during incarceration and those in and out of the prison. In Miller’s case, in addition to the prior escape, he has a criminal history including convictions for DUI, false identification to authorities, theft and receiving stolen property, according to court records.
A third review level is reserved for inmates convicted of sex crimes, which requires the prison warden, superintendent and Plantier each approve in order for the inmate to enter Community Corrections.
Often drugs are behind an inmate going missing, Plantier said. An inmate will use illegal drugs while in the community and know he’ll fail the drug tests, an infraction that would land them back in general population, Plantier said. Others are lured away by family or a romantic interest, he added.
While Miller’s 2011 escape conviction made him ineligible for the Community Corrections in 2012, he was locked up for a parole violation, he subsequently became eligible after being incarcerated a third time in March for a parole violation, Plantier said.
He remained in the regular prison until he was transferred to community corrections and approved for work release on June 5, according to authorities and court records. He was reported missing from one of the daily institutional counts the next day.
Plantier said prison officials “took our time” conducting Miller’s most recent risk assessment and screening and, in the end, he met the program criteria.
“We’d take a lot harder look at someone who had a prior escape. Given the nature of this guy’s offenses, his criminal history and none of them showed him as high or moderate risk,” Plantier said. “He’s more of a nuisance than a threat. We’re quite shocked that he assaulted the officer.”