Pennsylvania Prison Escapes Could Reflect Staffing Issues and Human Error


Before Danelo Cavalcante crab-walked his way up and out of the Chester County Prison, launching a sprawling manhunt in the wooded suburbs outside Philadelphia, a man named Igor Bolte escaped from the same jail. Twice.

The first time was in July 2019, when Mr. Bolte, who was serving a sentence for aggravated assault, walked out of a work-release center at the jail, “scaled a security fence and fled, on foot,” according to an affidavit. He was found early the next morning about a mile and a half from the jail.

This past May, Mr. Bolte, now 30 and held on a probation violation, got out again, climbing up the walls by the exercise yard — he later told a police detective that he “was a rock climber”— and then running across the roof and dropping down by the visitor’s entrance. He was caught within minutes.

With Mr. Cavalcante eluding authorities for more than a week now, scrutiny has turned to the jailbreaks at Chester County Prison. The key failing in last week’s escape was that an officer in the tower, charged with watching over the inmates in the exercise yard, did not appear to notice Mr. Cavalcante, said Howard Holland, the acting warden overseeing the jail, in a news conference on Wednesday.

Unlike in May, when a tower officer saw Mr. Bolte and alerted the jail’s staff, Mr. Cavalcante was discovered to be missing only when officers conducted a count in his cellblock nearly an hour later. And the installation of additional razor wire that followed Mr. Bolte’s escape in May proved insufficient to contain Mr. Cavalcante.

“The one thing we didn’t take into account was a failure on the human element side,” Mr. Holland said. “We only focused on the physical infrastructure.”

In a country full of jails and prisons, staffing issues are the central challenge facing corrections facilities, experts say, and prison officials have cited them as a primary factor in some escapes.

In an update on the search on Thursday, Lt. Col. George Bivens told reporters that someone had seen Mr. Cavalcante around noon near Longwood Gardens, a 1,000-acre botanical garden not far from the prison where he was seen on a security camera nights earlier. Law enforcement officers have converged on that area, Colonel Bivens said, searching on foot and horseback.

Some of the searchers had worked together before, including on a 10-day manhunt after a jailbreak in northwest Pennsylvania two months ago, he added.

In Pennsylvania, the number of escapes from county jails seems to have ticked up this year. From 2015 to 2022, according to state data, there were 14 reported escapes from county jails in Pennsylvania, and in none of those years were there more than four. In 2023 so far, at least six people have broken out of jail statewide.

This tally includes two men who escaped from a jail in Philadelphia and were not noticed as missing for nearly 19 hours. After their capture, Blanche Carney, the city’s prisons commissioner, told the City Council that the incarcerated population and the length of time people are held in jail are increasing, while the number of corrections officers is down.

“We are not fully operational,” she said, according to a report from radio station WHYY. “I do not have the full number of posts.”

In Pennsylvania specifically, according to a survey conducted last year by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, nearly half of county jails had significant numbers of vacant positions in their correctional staff. Chester County Prison had one of the highest vacancy rates among the surveyed jails, with more than a quarter of full-time positions unfilled.

Shortages of correctional staff can make life harder and more dangerous inside for officers and inmates alike, restricting programming and in some cases allowing disputes to spiral into violence — and also potentially increasing the odds of escape.

“It is likely that the staffing shortage that’s happening right now across the country is going to have some impact on safety and security, including escapes,” said Bryce E. Peterson, a criminologist at CNA, a research group in Arlington, Va., and at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Still, Mr. Peterson said it was difficult to quantify escapes, given how little research and standardized data is kept. Overall, escapes are rare, he said; most of them never make the news, and most prisoners who escape are quickly recaptured.

In a study of escapes in 2009, Mr. Peterson and his colleagues found that jails which had reported an escape were relatively larger and employed fewer correctional officers per inmate than did their control facilities that did not report an escape.

At the news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Holland emphasized the role of human error in Mr. Cavalcante’s escape. Though there were no vacant posts in the jail at the time, officials were considering plans for “additional personnel,” he said. The officer who was in the watchtower at the time of the escape had been placed on administrative leave, Mr. Holland said.

After Mr. Bolte’s jailbreak in May, officials brought in consultants to study the incident and make recommendations, some of which were structural. These included installing the additional razor wire.

Engineers came to the prison earlier this week to propose further measures, such as putting fencing over the top of the prison’s entire exercise yard, Mr. Holland said, fully enclosing it like “a cage.”

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