For Judith Latham, it was supposed to be a quick trip to a new beginning. A 2.5 hour bus ride from Philadelphia to a temporary home in Washington D.C.
“She was excited to see me and the kids,” said Lorie Joy, Latham’s sister.
They last spoke to each other June 28, three days before Latham left Philadelphia.
She called me to make sure I had the things that she requested we get for her,” Joy said. “Such as clothes and books.”
Clothes because Latham was finally leaving prison to go to a halfway house. Latham was serving time for a parole violation stemming from a 29-year sentence for first-degree burglary, armed robbery of a senior citizen and assault with a deadly weapon.
Nearing the end of her sentence, Latham was supposed to transfer herself to a halfway house in Washington. She never showed up.
“Employees at the prison in Philadelphia saw my sister get into the cab with a bus ticket,” Joy said.
FOX 5 has found Latham is not alone. Each year, more than 30,000 prisoners like Latham hop on public buses, headed mainly to a halfway house, as part of the Federal Bureau of Prison’s “Furlough Program.”
It’s been going on for years, but according to a new U.S. Department of Justice Inspector General report, there are big problems.
Officials admit they don’t actively monitor inmates in the program. They use a mainly paper-based system which contributed to missing documents and data entry errors. They’re not even sure how many inmates have been missing. Escape numbers range from 104 to 388 in the last three years.
"300 escapes is a lot,” said Mai Fernandez, the Executive Director of the National Center for Victims of Crime. “If you've been the victim of any one of the crimes that any one of those individuals has perpetuated, you're going to be really angry."
Fernandez says a furlough program can be an effective way to ease inmates back into society, but it has to be strictly monitored to be trusted.
"There's somebody putting them on the bus,” Fernandez said. “Someone greeting them on the bus when they get off and making sure that they get to the halfway house."
The Bureau of Prisons declined an on-camera interview, but in a statement says using escorts is “not necessary and not a prudent use of funds” since inmates at halfway houses “do not present a significant risk to the community.”
But Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) said, “There are too many people who are falling through the cracks."
He says he’s worried the report is just scratching the surface of the problem.
"It looks like they were using technology decades old. They haven't used computers the way they should, they don't have the type of review process that you would want, the type of accountability," said Cardin.
The Bureau of Prisons admits the system needs improvement and they drafted guidelines back in 2003. But those policy changes won’t be completed until 2017.
"I don't think we're going to accept seven years,” Cardin said. “We're just not going to do it."
Judith Latham is now listed as “escaped” and has a warrant out for her.
"Gut wise, I think that something is wrong,” said Joy. “She’s always gotten in touch with us to let us know she’s okay. Granted she did something wrong, but she’s still my sister.”
Response from Federal Bureau of Prisons:
For many years, BOP policy has allowed for an offender to be considered for unescorted transfer from a BOP low or minimum security institution to a minimum security level institution (Federal Prison Camp) or to a Residential Reentry Center (halfway house).
Minimum security federal prison camps are non-secure facilities that house low risk offenders. These facilities have no perimeter security fences or armed posts.
Residential Reentry Centers (also known as halfway houses) house inmates who are nearing their release dates. Halfway houses provide releasing inmates the opportunity to receive assistance in job placement, counseling, and other services, to prepare the offenders for a successful release into the community at the end of their prison term.
Inmates assigned to either prison camps of Residential Reentry Centers do not present a significant risk to the community. Once at the halfway house, the offender begins his job in the community, may attend medical appointments, education classes, and attend church all without an escort within the community. Therefore, to escort an offender to these non-secure facilities (prison camps and halfway houses) is not necessary and not a prudent use of funds. The Bureau of Prisons has done these types of transfers for many years with great success.
On costs: Although I dont have specific data regarding cost savings, we know the savings is substantial. To transfer these types of inmates using BOP staff or U.S. Marshals services, or contract services, would result in a large, unnecessary cost to the government and ultimately the taxpayer, especially given the minimal security requirements of these offenders. On average, over the last several years, approximately 31,000 inmates each year have gone on these unescorted transfers, more than 94% of them are for entry into a halfway house. Failures are rare and historically, fewer than .4% (four-tenths of a percent) of the inmates fail to report to the designated location. The reasons they do not abscond are the same reasons that inmates who are already in halfway houses and minimum security camps do not abscond; they run the risk of lengthening their original sentence by forfeiting good time credit, receiving an additional sentence for escape, and being housed in a more restrictive, higher security institution when they are returned to custody.
Traci Billingsley, Chief Public Information Officer