San Diego Union Tribune

October 12, 2005

Prison board reveals number of bus-riding escapees
77 unescorted inmates broke custody in past 3 years; 19 still at large

By Joe Cantlupe
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON Seventy-seven prisoners have escaped while traveling unescorted on Greyhound buses in the past three years, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. Nineteen of those inmates are still at large.

The number of escapes was disclosed recently to Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who asked prison officials for the information five months ago. Bureau of Prisons officials downplayed the escapes, saying they represented only a fraction of the more than 60,000 prisoners who traveled alone by bus during the three-year period.

Biden said he sought the data after a San Diego Union-Tribune story in May revealed the existence of the unescorted transfer program, which is still in effect. One of the prisoners mentioned in the article was described by U.S. marshals as armed and dangerous. Dwayne Fitzen, a convicted drug dealer, disappeared while traveling from Minnesota to California. He hasn't been captured.

Under the program, initiated by the Bureau of Prisons in 1996, low-risk prisoners are given bus tickets and allowed to travel alone from one facility to another. Most are headed to federal community corrections centers or halfway houses and to minimum-security facilities, known as prison camps, where they participate in programs to smooth their re-entry into society.

Like Biden, Greyhound officials became aware of the program through the Union-Tribune article.

Since May, Greyhound has sent two letters to the Bureau of Prisons asking that the program be stopped. The bureau sent Greyhound a copy of the information it sent Biden but did not respond to Greyhound's request to end the program, said Greyhound spokeswoman Kim Plaskett.

"We definitely have concerns," she said. "Right now we don't know what we're going to do . . . but we are going to push ahead with this. It's something too important to ignore."

Plaskett said neither the company nor its drivers are alerted when prisoners are put on their buses.

She said the Bureau of Prisons doesn't have an account with Greyhound and she doesn't know how the tickets are bought. Bureau of Prisons officials didn't return phone calls seeking information about the ticket purchases.

A spokesman for Biden said the senator has asked the Justice Department, which oversees the Bureau of Prisons, for the criminal records of the 19 escapees who remained at large as of Sept. 1.

When the Union-Tribune asked for similar data, Bureau of Prisons officials suggested it could be released under the Freedom of Information Act, a cumbersome process that often takes months.

"If dangerous inmates are being allowed to escape then this system is broken and needs to be fixed," Biden said in a statement released by his staff.

William E. Moschella, the assistant U.S. attorney general who responded to Biden's letter, wrote that the prisoners "pose a minimal risk of escaping or causing harm, and the escapes from unescorted transfers are very rare." He said escapees are typically recaptured within days or weeks of their disappearance.

"The use of unescorted transfers is consistent with the (Bureau of Prisons) mission to operate the federal prison system in a safe, secure, human and cost-efficient manner," Moschella told the senator.

He added that the prison system has few options other than sending low-risk prisoners alone by bus.

"The alternative to unescorted transfers is to transfer inmates with a staff escort or within the more expensive inmate transportation system," Moschella said. "The use of staff escorts for transfers that are currently allowed to occur without a staff escort would be cost prohibitive."

Biden said in his statement that while cost efficiency is important, "public safety must come first."

Joe Cantlupe: (202) 737-7687; joe.cantlupe@copleydc.com