Four inmates, including a man convicted of two murders, bolted Wednesday morning from a county jail in north-central Kansas where they were being held because the state prison system was too crowded.
The breakout, accomplished by prisoners using homemade knives and a ruse of a broken water pipe, underscores a longstanding debate in Kansas about prisons and spending priorities. The state, once regarded as a model for keeping its prison census under control, has seen its inmate population rise in recent years.
One of the four inmates who escaped from the Ottawa County jail in Minneapolis, Kan., was captured quickly, and a second man was apprehended Wednesday evening in Nebraska.
Closer to Kansas City, a fifth inmate walked away from his job assignment at the Lansing Correctional Facility in Leavenworth County. Authorities were still looking for him late Wednesday.
In Ottawa County, the inmates overpowered guards about 5 a.m. after complaining about a broken water line in the holding cell area, Ottawa County Sheriff Keith Coleman told The Salina Journal. Coleman said the inmates were then able to open the cell doors and make their way outside. The guards suffered minor injuries.
Jeremy Barclay, spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections, could provide no other details.
“We are so caught up with trying to find the inmates right now, while we certainly know a little bit about the actual escape, we will be delving into that more once we secure the public’s safety by having them back in our incarceration,” Barclay said.
The second inmate recaptured was Drew Edward Wade, 21, who was convicted of attempted robbery and intentional aggravated battery-great bodily harm in Shawnee County, which includes Topeka. He was taken into custody about 5:30 p.m.Wednesday in North Platte, Neb., after walking into a Wal-Mart and asking the manager to call police. Authorities there said Wade told authorities he had phoned his father, who persuaded him to turn himself in.
The two who remained at large:
• Santos M. Carrera-Morales, 22, who was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder in the Wichita area for slayings in July 2007.
• Eric Jerome James, 22, who was convicted of kidnapping in commission of a crime, three charges of aggravated burglary and criminal damage to property in Bourbon, Anderson and Allen counties.
The four were among 22 inmates that the state has transferred to Ottawa County in January because of overcrowding in Kansas prisons. As of Friday, 87 inmates were being housed in county jails under contracts to help alleviate overcrowding, Barclay said. The other jails are in Johnson, Leavenworth, Butler and Cowley counties
Those jails were inspected by state facilities management authorities several months before the inmates were sent there. Inspectors examine overall jail operations as well as security systems, locks, security gates and ensure there is enough staffing on each shift, Barclay said.
At one time, Kansas was able to control its prison population, in part by reducing recidivisim with programs designed to help parolees return to society. However, the Kansas penal system took its share of budget cuts as the state grappled with revenue declines during the recent economic downturn.
Inmate counts earlier this year showed men’s prisons are housing 8,635 inmates, 266 over capacity, while women’s prisons are expected to exceed capacity in about seven years, according to the Kansas Sentencing Commission. In the next decade, Kansas’ prisons are projected to be short about 2,000 beds.
One Kansas legislator said Wednesday that the Ottawa County escape underscores the challenge that awmakers have in ensuring public safety while finding ways to cut statewide expenses.
“It is a matter of what are our priorities and if our priorities are to cut spending, lower taxes and all of that, then at some point you reach a point where you either expand the bowl or you shrink the fish,” said Sen. Tim Owens of Overland Park. “This is one of those examples of where we shrunk the fish.”
For the long term, the Kansas Legislature is considering proposals to address prison overcrowding, Barclay said.
Officials want to expand the operational capacities at state acilities in Ellsworth and Oswego. In Ellsworth, they want to purchase a former boys’ home where they can add 95 beds.
“We’d better get that done because, apparently, farming them out doesn’t work,” Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler, a Republican whose district includes the prison, said.
In Oswego, the department wants to retrofit a closed facility to house 262 inmates.
The Ottawa County escape prompted the North Ottawa County Schools to delay and then cancel classes Wednesday. About 300 of the district’s 620 students walk to school each day and the district decided to close the schools as safety precaution, said Superintendent Larry Combs.
“My thought process was if they were still at large, hiding out and saw little children, they would see that as a ticket to freedom and grab one of the kids to serve as a hostage and get out of town,”Combs said. “And also once we are in school, we are pretty vulnerable if they would have gotten into the buildings and created a situation.”
Classes were expected to resume today, he said, because none of the inmates have ties to the local area.
Carrera-Morales, who entered the prison system in Aug. 2008, and James, who was admitted in April 2009, each had nearly 40 disciplinary reports, according Department of Corrections records.
Carrera-Morales was one of three people charged in a gang-related murder in March 2007 in southeast Wichita.
Because Carrera-Morales was 17 years old at the time, he was charged as a juvenile. He was certified as an adult and later pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in Sedgwick County, according to court documents. He was sentenced to life in prison.
The decision on where to place inmates is not necessarily tied to the severity of the crime they committed, Barclay said.
Each inmate goes through a battery of interviews, tests and other evaluators to determine their initial classification level, Barclay said.
“Some people who are burglars may need to be managed at a higher level than a murderer, for an example,” he said. “It is tied more to the security classification that is merited. This individual (Carrera-Morales) was merited a medium-high classification.”
The Lansing escape occurred a few hours before the one in Ottawa County, but was far less violent.
Lansing Correctional Facility staff realized at 3 a.m. that Gary Leslie Furthmyer, 59-year-old child sex offender, had walked away from his minimum custody job assignment at the prison steam plant.
The inmate left at some point during the night, said Brett Peterson, spokesman for the Lansing prison.
“This was a minimum-custody work assignment and he did not report in when he should’ve,” Peterson said. “Upon checking they found that he was gone.”
Furthmyer is serving time for a 1985 conviction in Sedgwick County of indecent liberties with a child and aggravated failure to appear. He previously escaped in 1988 and returned to prison in 1993, according to his prison history.