Living Out Loud

Prison Break


Note: As an unabashed and outspoken progressive, I feel like I need to explain how I came to be a part of the prison industrial complex in the south. If you are interested in how that happened, you can read this explanation.

On a Friday afternoon in the spring of 1988, I was preparing to begin counting the inmates under my supervision at the prison where I worked in order to be ready for the pending shift change. I was making my rounds on C Block locking doors to confine prisoners into their 10 and 12-man rooms when my shift sergeant came running towards me and told me to give my keys to another officer and follow him. I did as he commanded and asked him what in the hell was going on as we ran down the long hall in front of the mess hall towards the central unit of the prison. He told me that we'd just had three inmates go through the fence at tower three. The officer on the tower had fired his shotgun at them but no one knew if any of them had been injured. I was 23 at the time, fresh out of the Army and in good shape. The captain wanted me to meet the bloodhound handler who was in route from a unit a mile away. Second shift officers were already being dispatched to line the roads near the prison in attempt to keep the escapees confined to a wooded area of about 40 acres into which they had fled. I checked out a weapon, a Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum revolver, from the arsenal located in the base of the tower while I waited for the bloodhound handler to arrive. As soon as he did, we went into the woods.

The inmates had managed to obtain a wrench, probably from someone assigned to work with our maintenance staff. They'd removed the nuts from the bolts that held the fence together at the corner of the yard, right beside a narrow opening where a large, mechanized gate slid in between the double fences to allow vehicles to enter the compound. There was no concertina wire there and when they stepped into the gap, they just had to slide out of the opening for the gate and they were outside the entire enclosure. They'd managed to do this at some unknown time, about twenty feet away from the gun tower where an armed officer supervised the exercise yard - when he wasn't busy letting vehicles in and out or issuing weapons to transportation officers.

There were three of them and oddly enough they were what North Carolina called safe keepers, unconvicted jail inmates deemed too dangerous for county facilities. They'd been transferred to a prison where the security was supposed to be tighter. Two of them had escaped from a county jail in the western part of the state by obtaining a hacksaw blade and using it to saw through a bar of their cell, using the bar in an assault on a deputy and fracturing his skull. We later found out that they were the masterminds of this escape too. The third inmate, awaiting trial for the shooting of a highway patrolman just took the opportunity to leave with them when he saw what they were doing. The law says that a fleeing convicted felon trying to escape prison custody can be stopped with deadly force, but since these men hadn't been convicted of anything yet, we told at this point to "try not to shoot them." I'm dead serious.

With those words in my ears, I walked through the woods slightly behind and to the left of Sgt. C.W. Lunsford, the bloodhound handler. The dog had his nose to the ground, and it was only a few minutes until we found a spot where the inmates had stopped to shed the outer shirts of their brown prison uniforms. My head was on a swivel and every wisp of wind through the branches of the pine trees sounded like something scary. Every snapping twig was frightening. I was trying to recall every bit of training I'd ever had on self-defense and trying to figure out what I was going to do if and when we encountered the escapees. My plan was to fire my pistol in their general direction if I could in order to frighten them into giving up. Of course, if we got close enough to physically struggle with them, I figured I'd do what I had to do to protect myself. I needn't have worried.

As it turns out two of the inmates were lying in thick kudzu vines about 100 yards from where we found their clothing. The useless bloodhound never tracked them. The third inmate has run in another direction and was actually making his way on foot across the military reservation of Ft. Bragg (now Ft. Liberty). He wasn't caught for another two years until he was arrested in Brooklyn, NY, in drag, for another crime. The two who'd laid in the kudzu had made their way across the road after nightfall. They'd stolen civilian clothes from a clothesline and a single bicycle from a nearby home. They managed to stay free until about 5:00 AM Sunday morning when old, nearly retired sergeant named Lonnie Bounds saw them cross a dirt road in front of him. He fired into the air above their heads, and they immediately surrendered, tired, hungry, mosquito bitten and in custody once again. I was miles away from where it happened, working at the prison manning the radios and giving instructions to different search teams and vehicles.  I didn't even stay to watch them returned to the unit. As soon as we got word on the radio that they were in custody, I asked to be relieved, and I made the 40-mile drive home to get some sleep. I had to be back at work the next day.