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Branchville Correctional Facility has been a good neighbor for more than 25 years, providing jobs to hundreds of Perry County residents. It's also protected the public and rehabilitated thousands of offenders and prepared them for their return to Hoosier communities. Today, the medium-security facility houses about 1,300 men and is one of the county's leading employers.
The relationship between correctional facility and community has been strained over the past year by a pair of breakouts that allowed five men to escape. The March 20 escapes of Jerry Sargent, Christopher Marshall and Bobby Cockerell was the worst in the facility's history. One employee was seriously injured and the three men went on to injure three other people in Kentucky before their recapture Thursday in the Nebraska sandhills.
Over the past week, Perry Countians have been asking questions about the men incarcerated at Branchville and what steps will be taken to prevent future escapes. Those are fair questions that have to be addressed.
Prison officials responded to the April 2008 escapes of two men by adding more razor wire to the fence and extra lighting. Those were good steps to take, but didn't stop Sargent, Marshall and Cockerell from finding the means to assault a maintenance worker, take his tools and cut through the steel fence without being detected.
First, let's give credit where it's due. Correctional workers and the leadership at Branchville are dedicated to public safety and no one is more committed to preventing escapes, but we think there are some added steps that can be taken. In December 2007, the facility's superintendent announced Branchville would increase nighttime lighting and add an electrified fence, which would deliver up to 5,000 volts at low amperages. The fence wouldn't be lethal, but would stun offenders who tried to scale it. It's our understanding that the lighting project is still a go. We haven't been updated on the stun fence. Nor do we know whether such a fence would have prevented the escapes. It's possible the three could have cut through it, too.
We also know that approval of state money for better security or more officers isn't entirely a local process but involves Department of Correction officials in Indianapolis who hold the purse strings.
Suggestions we've heard over the past week have included a siren that would warn nearby residents of escapes or other emergencies. We also wonder if roadside signs could be installed with flashing lights or perhaps even digital messages that would activate when an escape has occurred. There are signs in place that warn motorists they are in a prison area and not to pick up hitchhikers, but other signs could warn motorists that an escape has occurred, just as those types of signs warn motorists in busy areas of congested traffic.
The color of offenders' garb has also been called into question. We know DOC offenders around the state wear khaki pants and shirts, but some wonder if another color, such as orange or yellow, might be a better choice. Khaki blends in too well when offenders escape.
Some Department of Correction efforts are already working. An alert system that allows residents to sign up for automated phone calls about escapes or other emergencies worked better than previously. A bug in the system kept calls from going out after the 2008 escape.
Finally, we suggest DOC officials host a community meeting at some point this spring or summer to address residents' questions and concerns about the local prison. Over the past several years, Department of Correction policies have changed to allow men serving longer sentences to be placed at Branchville and other medium-security facilities. As we all know, some of those offenders are more prone to escape.
We don't expect correctional facility supporters to share every detail of how they'll prevent escapes in the future, but we encourage them to share as much news as possible.
Any correctional facility, as with any county jail, poses some risk to the public and no prison will ever be escape-proof. As neighbors to Branchville Correctional Facility, and as taxpayers who fund state correctional programs, all of us have a stake in what happens. We encourage Department of Correction officials to do all they can to minimize chances for future escapes and to keep the community informed on how they can support those efforts.
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