Alabama Jailbreak: How Inmate Escape Highlights Bigger Issue

The seemingly made-for-TV story of the Alabama murder suspect who escaped from jail with the help of a female correctional officer after the two possibly became “romantically involved” ended in tragedy this week. Vicky White, assistant director of corrections in the Lauderdale County Jail at Florence, Ala. was killed by suicide by Casey White. White and White had been spotted in Evansville in Indiana, police said.

This case was a huge sensation and attracted extensive television coverage. Escapes are incredibly rare—an estimated 0.1% of prisoners escape custody. Escapes that involve inside help are rare.

But Vicky White’s alleged relationship with Casey White also highlights a daily reality within jails and prisons across America: Inmates and correctional officers often form personal bonds because of the close nature of their environment. These relationships may be beneficial to incarcerated individuals, but they can also lead to abuse due the inordinate authority of correctional officers.

“One of the bigger difficulties with something like corrections is that there’s an important boundary that has to be established between inmates and [correctional officials] but it’s important to keep a human connection as well,” says Thomas Baker, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida. “You don’t want to treat [inmates] poorly but you don’t want to step over certain boundaries.”

Vicky White, a falsely asserting that she was going to Court for Casey White on April 29, helped him escape jail. Rick Singleton, Lauderdale County Sheriff, said that an investigation found that Vicky White was in a relationship with Casey White. Other prisoners complained she offered him preferential treatment including more food.

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Guards can make sexual contact with inmates, but they’re also illegal. Inmates don’t have the legal right to consent because of the authority correctional officers have over them. A 2014 U.S. Bureau of Prisons survey found that more female correctional officers committed sexual assaults than male prisoners. This study identified 545 instances of sexual assault between 2009-2011 in federal, state and local prisons. More than 90% of the victims were male inmates, and in 85% of cases investigators said the victims “appeared willing.”

This incident raises questions about the supervision at Vicky White’s facility. Because she was a jail manager, Vicky White had authority to transport prisoners by herself. While it’s not clear whether staffing issues were a factor in this case, jails and prisons across the country are facing shortages of workers—leading to worries about oversight.

“Corrections in the United States right now is under humongous staffing issues. Everyone is short of staff. There’s nowhere that has as many people as they would like,” Baker says.

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Vicky White is loved in every county where she was employed. “The whole sheriff’s office is like family,” Singleton said at a press conference on May 9. “When you have a family member that makes a bad choice, you know, you don’t like them but you still love them. It was like she was our family. And so yeah, it hurts.”

Following a national manhunt they were finally spotted in a Motel 6 parking garage 275m away from Evansville, Ind. On May 9, they were spotted at a Motel 6 parking lot in Evansville, Ind. An intense car chase followed, ending in Vicky White and her accomplice driving their Cadillac gray Cadillac into the ground. Vicky White was later found dead at the hospital after she shot herself, according to authorities. Casey White was taken into police custody and is now awaiting extradition to Alabama.

“They thought they’d driven long enough. They wanted to stop for a while, get their bearings straight and then figure out the next place to travel,” Vandenburgh County, Indiana Sheriff Dave Wedding said at a press conference Tuesday.

Authorities say the pair had several semi-automatic weapons including an AR-15 assault rifle and $29,000 cash. They also owned wigs. Casey White told police that he was ready to fire at the officers when he was taken into custody.

“Escapes in and of themselves are rare when it comes to critical incidents in prisons and jails. To add on top of it, a staff member helping an inmate escape from custody is super rare,” Jeff Mellow, a criminal justice professor at John Jay College in New York City says. “The overwhelming majority of escapees are caught within the first month. In many ways, this escape fits into the pattern of typical escapes.”

The facility’s small size makes it easier to escape. It houses 233 people and holds about 5,000 prisoners each year.

“If we look at the type of facilities where individuals escape from, the majority escaped from small jails. They oftentimes are less secure, don’t have the type of perimeter fencing that maximum secure facilities have,” Mellow says.

Although escapes without the assistance of correctional officers are rare, this case is a relatively recent example. The case attracted similar attention. Joyce Mitchell was found guilty of helping Richard Matt (convicted killer) and David Sweat escape a New York state prison. She sneaked in ammunition, guns and other materials to help them get out. Mitchell had an affair with at least one inmate. It was this story that inspired the Showtime miniseries Escape to Dannemora.

Casey White had already been sentenced to 75 years for several prior offenses. He was still awaiting his trial for murder in connection to a stabbing incident that occurred in 2015. If he’s convicted in that case, he could face the death penalty.

Baker, a Central Florida professor hopes that Alabama’s tragic jailbreak doesn’t deter jail officials and prisoners from maintaining positive relationships with inmates.

“Correctional Officers are the people that come in contact with the incarcerated more often than anybody else. And so they can really help with the re-socialization process that’s supposed to take place in prisons and jails,” Baker says. “This could set up a perspective that there should be even less contact and more dehumanization of [inmates] and that’s problematic.”

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or text HOME (741741) to access the Crisis Text Line. For emergency situations, dial 911 or go to a hospital.

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