At one prison in Lexington, inmates are taking the easy way out
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) -- While the nation has focused on two escaped inmates from New York, five inmates have quietly sneaked away from a Kentucky prison -- just this year. Two of them are still on the run.
Driving through Lexington, Kentucky, you'll see wistful horses in fields and the miles of wooden fences that keep them there. It is the "Horse Capital of the World," where horses run freely in their fields -- and so do inmates at the Blackburn Correctional Complex.
It's like a strange college campus. Inmates walk around freely, unsupervised while heading to a job to mow some of the 400 acres at the prison, or on their way to class.
"That's part of being a minimum custody inmate, they're given more responsibility from that standpoint, we're trying to transition them back into society," said Warden Steve Haney.
Haney is in charge of Blackburn, and the nearly 600 inmates housed there. Already in 2015, five inmates have escaped and two are still on the run.
"Certainly when I'm sitting home at night I'm sitting there thinking we could have one tonight, or it could be a year from now," said Haney.
The inmates who have not been captured are Kelley Conway and James Dennis. They both escaped on April 17, 2015. Conway was serving time for robbery. Dennis was convicted of drug charges, and has a lengthy past involving theft by writing cold checks.
A WDRB investigation of escapes at every Kentucky prison over the past 10 years shows 62 inmates have escaped from Blackburn since 2004. Twenty-five have escaped from Bell County Forestry Camp, another minimum security facility. Two prisons that have not had any escapes in the last ten years are Luther Luckett and Little Sandy. Most of the remaining prisons have had a handful of escapes or less, with the exception of the Western Kentucky Correctional Complex, which had 8 escapes. The Marion Adjustment facility, a private prison, had 46 escapes, but closed in 2012.
The number of escapes at Blackburn is higher than the rest of Kentucky's prisons. Inmates are able to escape easily. All they have to do is hop a fence --not a security fence with barbed wire. A horse fence. Just like the miles of black rungs you see along the rolling hills of Lexington.
Haney says a back corner of the prison grounds is where the inmates usually take off, running towards the train tracks or Interstate 64. "Sometimes they say, 'Hey it was just a beautiful day, spur of the moment, I just decided, I'm gonna walk off.' Some of them get news from home, bad news, and they say the stress gets to them," Haney explained.
"Have high fences ever been considered or discussed? Or is that off the table?" reporter Rachel Collier asked. "They have," responded Haney. "I've had discussions with our leadership and at the end of the day, the decision is, this is a part of the system. It's a minimum custody facility."
When Timothy Day escaped this spring, it was a nightmare for Crystal Wilcoxon. "I was terrified he would come here." She has temporary state custody of Day's three young sons who live with her four children. She says her boyfriend's sister is Day's wife. "He (Day) would probably hurt me to get to his kids, or hurt one of my kids to get to his own kids," Wilcoxon feared. Day has a long criminal history including convictions of child abuse, cruelty to animals and burglary. He was captured in May in Louisville after more than a month on the run. "I don't see how he was even in a minimum security," said Wilcoxon.
Inmates at Blackburn are eligible to be released in four years or less-either through parole or time left to serve. While Day's sentence was not set to expire until 2029, he would have been up for parole in 2017.
"He was going back out into the streets pretty quickly anyway," said Haney. "that doesn't mean that it was okay for him to have walked off," said Haney, who added that it is concerning when an inmate walks off.
Haney says fences have been discussed, but are not the solution. "If you put the fences up and restrict movement, you're not really operating a minimum custody facility. You're not giving an inmate responsibility, freeing up his movement, show that he's ready to transition back into society," said Haney.
The lack of fencing is one thing. Figuring out "who" should come to Blackburn is another. That is up to a classifications team that works out of the Roederer Correctional Complex in Lagrange.
"I think it's just hard to completely be able to predict human behavior, some of the guys that have walked off or escaped from this facility, none of their history would've indicated they would have done that," said Haney.
But WDRB found that some of the inmates who have escaped have histories that might raise eyebrows.
Robert Vick escaped from Blackburn in 2014. His criminal history includes convictions of complicity to kidnapping an adult, aggravated assault, burglary, and perhaps the most interesting--he escaped from a different prison in 1993. Michael Moss escaped from Blackburn in 2005. He was serving time for facilitation to commit murder. Haney says the state uses a nationally accepted classification system that looks at things like the severity of the current crime, age and the number of disciplinary reports they have had while locked up.
A spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Corrections added that if the inmate is a felony sex offender they are precluded from being sent to a minimum custody facility because their score would be too high. This is also true for anyone serving on a class A felony.
Some inmates do not stay out of trouble once they have escaped. Charles Blanton escaped this spring and racked up charges of fleeing or evading police, wanton endangerment of a police officer, assault, DUI, and other charges. Michael Fleet was charged with robbery after escaping Blackburn.
All prisons in Tennessee, Indiana, and Ohio have security fences. A prisoner has not escaped or walked away in Indiana since 2009 when three got loose.
That same year in Kentucky, 14 escaped. In Ohio, three escaped last in 2013. That same year in Kentucky, five escaped. The last escape for Tennessee was in 2014 when one inmate escaped. In Kentucky in 2014, 12 inmates escaped, nine at Blackburn alone.
A spokesman for the Ohio Department of Corrections said, "It is really going to be difficult to draw comparisons because you are comparing different corrections policies from state to state."
We wanted to ask LaDonna Thomspon, the commissioner of Kentucky's Department of Corrections if the state has a problem. She declined our request for an interview.
Spokeswoman Lisa Lamb says, "We review our security policies and procedures on a continual basis. As with every serious incident, including escapes, we conduct a review by correctional professionals outside of the facility who review all aspects of the incident. Once that review is completed a determination is made as to what, if any, changes need to be made."
Those who have lived with fear when an inmate escape want answers and change.
"Anybody could get out of there for any reason and come after whoever they want," said Wilcoxon.
Since coming to Blackburn in 2012, Haney says he has put stricter policies in place. There is a lockdown at 9, he's restricted movement on the grounds, added more cameras and lighting, and put up screens on windows. But still, inmates take off. "The opportunity is there, without a secure perimeter," said Haney.
Haney points out that the majority of the nearly 600 inmates are productive, and succeed because there is so much on the line. They are on a path to be free in four years or less. The unpredictable inmates are the ones who cannot wait to get that taste of freedom on the other side.
Inmates who do escape are not sent back to Blackburn, and get 5 to 10 years added to their sentences.
Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All rights reserved.