How Often Do Prisoners Escape?

Six escaped convicts from an Alabama prison were arrested Thursday in Tennessee. Last week, the last two of the “Texas Seven” fugitives surrendered in Colorado. How often do U.S. prisoners escape? 

Not very. In 1998, the most recent year for which data are available from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 6,530 people escaped or were AWOL from state prisons. That was a little more than one-half of 1 percent of the total population of 1,100,224 state prisoners.


And the numbers are declining. Fewer people have escaped from state prisons every year since 1994, and the percentage of prisoners escaping or going AWOL has fallen steadily, too. In 1993, 14,305 prisoners escaped out of a prison population of 780,357. That’s almost 2 percent.

True, there are still thousands of escapees a year. Why aren’t you hearing about them? The vast majority of escapees are “walk-aways” from community corrections facilities that have minimal supervision. Dramatic, Hollywood-style escapes from maximum security prisons are the ones that draw media attention. 


Like their maximum security counterparts, the minimum security walk-aways are usually recovered. State prisons reported that more escapees and AWOL prisoners were returned than escaped every year from 1995 to 1998. The last year with more escapees than recaptured prisoners was 1994, when 14,307 prisoners escaped and 13,346 were returned.

Federal prison breakouts are rarer than state prison escapes. One federal prisoner escaped and was recaptured in 1999, out of a prison population of more than 115,000. He was the only one to escape in the past four years. 

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Explainer thanks Jim Stephan, a statistician with the corrections unit of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and Traci Billingsley, spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.