The escape of a convicted murderer from a Chester County correctional facility in late August is not the only incident of its kind in Pennsylvania in the past few months.
For one, there was a similar incident in May at that facility. The same month, two people escaped from a Philadelphia jail through a hole in a recreation yard fence. And in July an inmate escaped from an exercise room in the Warren County jail in the northwest part of the state.
What these all have in common is that they were escapes from jail facilities run by counties at the local level. That’s a “whole different animal” than a state prison facility, said Don Hummer, an associate professor of criminal justice in the school of public affairs at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg.
“(State prisons) are much more of a rigid, organizational culture in terms of how the facilities are run,” Hummer said. Local jails, by contrast, “are different from county to county.”
While there have been at least four newsworthy escapes in Pennsylvania this year, it’s difficult to know how that number compares to other states. There is not a central database that accurately tracks correctional facility escapes in the US, experts said, and these escapes remain exceedingly rare.
Within Pennsylvania, though, it’s clear that this is a county-level problem, said Jordan Hyatt, an associate professor of criminology and justice studies and the director of the Center for Public Policy at Drexel University.
“Multiple escapes from county (facilities) but none from state (facilities) shows the ways they diverge,” Hyatt said.
What we know of the four escapes
The latest escape is perhaps the most significant of the four notable incidents this year.
Danelo Cavalcante, a 34-year-old convicted of first-degree murder last month in the 2021 killing of his ex-girlfriend, escaped from the Chester County Prison on August 31 and was captured two weeks later.
Despite its name, Chester County Prison is technically a county jail, while SCI Chester is the nearby state prison. Cavalcante was sentenced to life in prison but had not yet been transferred to a state prison at the time of his escape.
Surveillance video of the escape shows he placed his hands on one wall and his feet on another and “crab-walked” up to the roof. He then ran across the roof, scaled another fence, and got through more razor wire, authorities said.
Neither the tower guard overlooking the prisoners nor the person tasked with monitoring the facility’s cameras saw the escape as it happened. The tower guard is on administrative leave amid an investigation.
Another inmate escaped from the same facility using a similar tactic in May.
Igor Bolte climbed onto the facility’s roof and dropped down to a less secure area on May 19, court documents obtained by CNN show. Bolte told police he was able to scale a wall in an exercise area by putting his legs against one wall and his arms on another until he was able to pull himself onto the roof. He was caught within minutes, less than a mile from the prison.
Prison officials said they subsequently took steps to enhance security.
“We thought we took appropriate measures to … prevent that with the razor wire,” Chester County Prison Acting Warden Howard Holland said during a September 6 news conference. “Again, the one thing we didn’t take into account was a failure on the human element side, we only focused on the physical infrastructure and not necessarily the human element.”
Holland said other measures are being considered, including only allowing violent criminals alone time in the exercise yard.
Miles away, also in May, Ameen Hurst and Nasir Grant escaped the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Facility through a hole in a recreation yard fence that had been “deliberately cut,” according to the Philadelphia Department of Prisons. The men had been missing for nearly a full day before the facility’s staff noticed, authorities said.
Grant, who had been in custody on narcotics and gun violations, was captured several days later. Hurst, who was being held on charges related to four homicides, was captured just over a week later. Three other people, including another inmate, were charged in connection with the escape.
Finally, there was a significant escape in July in Warren County in the northwestern part of the state. In that case, Michael Burham, who was being held on an arson and burglary case, escaped through a hole in the gated covering of an exercise room at the jail. Within seconds, he got onto the roof of the jail and then used a rope of sheets to lower himself to the ground, authorities said.
He was captured in a wooded area near Warren after more than a week on the run.
How jails and prisons differ
Though the terms are often used interchangeably in common language, jails and prisons refer to distinct facilities.
Jails are operated at the county level and are generally for short-term incarceration, such as people on pre-trial detention or those serving sentences less than two years.
Meanwhile, prisons are operated by the state or federal government and house people serving longer sentences. Because there is less turnover, prisons typically offer more resources and services to inmates, such as drug treatment programs or post-secondary education, Hyatt said.
Either way, correctional facilities of all kinds have had staffing issues in recent years because of the hot labor market as well as the specific challenges of working in corrections. Those staffing issues tend to be more pronounced at local county jails.
“Generally speaking, there are staff shortages throughout many correctional systems, especially at the local level, which limit the ability of institutions to supervise incarcerated populations as they may want to,” Hyatt said.
Hummer said he believes county jails don’t need to significantly change – escapes are very rare, after all – but should conduct regular reviews to examine potential security issues going forward.
“The security protocols in place have been adequate over the years,” Hummer said. “I don’t think there’s any need to see change there, but local facilities, I think all of them could use regular security surveys to determine weaknesses and potential areas of breach, because when we do see someone getting out of a facility, it’s usually at a local level.”