Public Media for Central Pennsylvania
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Jailbreaks in Pennsylvania are not as common as recent events imply

Exterior of Allegheny County Jail
Nate Smallwood
Spotlight PA
Exterior of Allegheny County Jail

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds the powerful to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania correctional institutions have been the subject of public scrutiny after two high-profile escapes this summer. But how frequent are these kinds of incidents?

Not very.

Of the thousands of people incarcerated in Pennsylvania jails every month, there have been only 14 “actual escapes” from confinement in the past eight years, according to a Spotlight PA analysis of data the jails self-report to the state Department of Corrections.

While the county jails mostly hold people who are awaiting a trial or a transfer to another facility, the state-run prisons hold people after they are sentenced. There have been two escapes from these prisons in the past 25 years: one in 2007 and one in 1997, according to the department.

The high-profile escape of Danelo Cavalcante from jail in Chester County would be classified as an “actual escape,” where a person successfully broke out of confinement. Cavalcante escaped while awaiting transfer to a more secure state prison where he would serve his life sentence for killing his ex-girlfriend.

So would the recent breakout of nine teenagers from Abraxas Academy in Philadelphia. Spotlight PA did not analyze data related to escapes from youth detention centers because consistent data were not available.

The jail data show an additional 71 attempted escapes from 2015 through 2022.

But the vast majority of escapes are considered “walk-aways,” where someone leaves the jail for an approved reason, such as work release, and never returns. There were 557 walk-aways between 2015 and 2022, about 87% of all escapes.

Altogether, escapes from adult jails in Pennsylvania are down significantly from pre-pandemic years. The number of escapes dropped from 106 in 2019 to 27 in 2020. It increased to 43 last year.

Even a more expansive view of escapes reveals their infrequency.

The Pennsylvania State Police not only respond to calls for “escapes”, when adults flee county jails or walk away from approved release, but also when incarcerated youth break out of detention centers or when a person held on a warrant escapes from a constable at a district judge’s office, said State Police spokesman Adam Reed.

State Police have responded to 45 such calls this year, Reed said, compared to 56 last year and 88 in 2021.

But a “scale the prison wall” style escape, such as Cavalcante’s, is still quite rare, he said.

Though escapes from secure settings like prisons and jails are serious, escapes themselves are rarely violent when in progress, nor are the fugitives likely to commit violence when in the community, said Jeff Mellow, a professor at the City University of New York who studies flights from correctional institutions.

“Even though everybody assumed that there would be violence during during [Cavalcante’s] time in the community and recapture, he did not engage in any violence during that time,” Mellow said, “which once again, supports our research that less than 10% of escapes are violent at the time of escape, and then it even goes further down from there post-escape and at the time of recapture.”

Escapes happen far less frequently now than in the past, Mellow added, because most facilities use cameras, facial recognition technology and infrared sensors to stop people from leaving . Successful breakouts usually stem from human error, he said, and the people who manage them are almost always caught.

“We found that approximately 92% to 95% were recaptured,” Mellow said. “I think we can honestly say that’s even higher for ones that escape from medium or maximum security facilities.”

In the small number of cases where people are not found, authorities may have felt the person posed a lower risk and decided not to raise a widespread alert, Mellow said.

“They walked away and they just had a few more weeks on their sentence or something like that,” he said. “They're still an escapee, but it doesn't have that national attention.”