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Prisoners On The Run

More than 15,000 Connecticut Inmates Have Escaped -- Walked Away From Halfway Houses Or Skipped Parole -- Since 1970. Nearly 1,100 Are Still On The Loose


February 11, 2012

Ricky Haggood firebombed Richard and Deborah Dozier's house on Carmel Street in New Haven in 1990, while the couple was upstairs in their bedroom, sleeping. They managed to race out the back.

Haggood thought the Doziers, who were active in the local block watch, had tipped police off to drug dealing on the street. Haggood received a 20-year sentence in 1991 for arson.

But by 2003, several years short of his maximum release date, Haggood was on the lam. He didn't go over the wall they almost never do.

He was released, by the state parole board, to parole authorities in New York in April 2002. Soon, he stopped reporting to his case officer, though, and went underground. In October 2003, while still the responsibility of Connecticut prison officials, committed a gang-related murder. He would not be recaptured until the late summer of 2004.

The seriousness of Haggood's crime is unusual for a Connecticut parolee, but his time on the lam isn't.

A Courant review found that since 1970, 15,255 inmates have walked away from halfway houses or bolted from their parole officers, and have been listed as "escaped" or "absconded" for some period of time. It could be hours. It could be years. A small number of them were let go from prison accidentally or never returned from a work furlough.

The median time on the lam: 70 days

A third of those escapes have occurred since 2000, with hundreds of new cases every year.

The home-release program in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a disastrous, now-defunct release mechanism, contributed several thousand to the roster of temporary escapees in just a few short years.

Only one inmate has escaped from a secured facility in the past 10 years, a prison official said.

The correction department's elite, highly trained, 7-person fugitive unit has to go after those who abscond, and most are recaptured.

But not all. Of the total listed as escaped since 1970, nearly 1,100 are still missing. They have so far defied the fugitive unit. They have gone off the grid.

Nearly half of the 1,100 were convicted originally of drug offenses, but The Courant culled the list of the still-missing and found 137 serious offenders who have been on the lam for years. Among them: a half-dozen convicted of manslaughter and 28 convicted of felony assault.

They, like all the inmates who are released to community supervision, convinced the prison system they could make it out in the world, under certain conditions.

But they didn't.

"I'm angry," said Deborah Dozier upon learning for the first time that Haggood had been free, and had killed again, while on release from the Connecticut prison system.

She said the family went through enough because of the firebombing. She would not have wanted him out. Dozier said her family had no idea Haggood was coming up for parole.

'Worth The Risk'

To Leo C. Arnone, inmates like Ricky Haggood and Curtis Davis, a convicted murderer who committed robberies while on parole, are worth the risk.

Arnone, son of a cop, is the commissioner of the Department of Correction, the largest state agency in Connecticut.

"The science tells you," he said recently in his office, decorated with furniture made by inmates, "that releasing people to supervision in the community toward the end of their sentences reduces recidivism. We can review their work habits, make sure they meet a curfew, make sure they stay clean. It sets a future tone. A lot of these guys had never worked a day in their lives."

He is asked whether several hundred escapes a year, or 15,255 over 40 years, is too many. He barely pauses.

He says it still a minuscule number compared with the several hundred thousand inmates who have been released on community supervision, short of their full sentences, since 1970. And he notes that all but 1,100 of the escapees were back in the system.

But what about parolees who abscond and commit new crimes when they technically could still be in a prison cell? What about victims such as Deborah Dozier?

"I understand," Arnone said. "I'm not a stranger to it. My own family has had victimization. But I have to stand back and say, 'These people are getting out anyway.' It's a balance. Should I take the risk that a small number will walk away when the research tells us we'll reap the benefits of a lower recidivism rate and save thousands upon thousands of dollars? We say, yes it is."

But Arnone and Erika Tindill, chairwoman of the state parole board, both acknowledge that the state has to do a better job in screening and assessing inmates for release.

Tindill, a former prosecutor and anti-domestic violence activist who was named to the parole post by Gov.Dannel P. Malloylast year, said the state is poised to adopt a new risk-assessment tool that can better predict an inmate's tendency to bolt once released to parole or a halfway house.

"There is a 100 percent certainty it's guaranteed that someone sometime will do something terrible while on parole," Tindill said. "The key is to use the best research and the best practices to help you identify who that is before they're released."

She added that reducing the number of parole absconders and halfway house walkaways "is a matter of better risk assessment. A person not likely to comply with a parole should register as a high risk."

"These people don't want to be supervised," Tindill continued, "and there's a way to measure that, a certain way of interviewing."

The new assessment tool, developed by the University of Cincinnati and used in Ohio and several other states, can measure how much an inmate has changed while in prison and is more sensitive than the current method in picking up attitudes of non-compliance, Tindill said.

Difficult To Defend

The tool, which will be pressed into service late next summer, is coming too late for Curtis Davis.

Davis, 48, killed a man in New Haven in 1979, when Davis was a 15-year-old juvenile. He was sentenced as an adult in 1980 to 18 years to life, under the old indeterminate sentencing structure.

That meant he was eligible for parole consideration after nine years, or 50 percent of the lowest number. And good time reduced that amount even further. He was paroled after seven years, in 1987.

He was readmitted to prison with violations in 1990. In June 1991 he was sent to a halfway house. He absconded in October 1992 and committed robberies of a bank and Subway sandwich shop. He was returned to prison and spent the next 10 years behind bars. He was released to Massachusetts parole authorities in 2002. He was returned to a Connecticut prison in 2003 after violating parole.

Over the next eight years, he would be in and out of prison a half-dozen times and violate parole or be listed as an escapee at least four additional times.

Last year, while on the lam, Davis, a longtime heroin addict, checked himself into a Massachusetts mental hospital under an assumed name. The correction department's fugitive unit found him and brought him back to Connecticut. His parole officer now will recommend that his parole status be revoked and that he not be let out again. He will spend the rest of his life in prison.

John DeFeo, executive director of the state parole board, acknowledged that Davis' record looks difficult to defend, he said some of the violations were minor and authorities believed he deserved another chance. He said Davis' decision to hide in the mental hospital under an assumed name was a serious violation.

Relentless Pursuit

Dan Bennett doesn't mind hearing about the new risk-assessment tool. It's OK with him if fewer problematic inmates are paroled every year. He knows he'll always have enough business. Bennett is the head of the fugitive apprehension unit.

The seven armed parole officers in the unit are constantly on the move and their work is never done.

Bennett's boss, Joe Haggan, head of parole and community services, called the unit his "insurance policy" insurance against the many dozens of inmates each year who tell the parole board they'll follow the rules and then don't.

When an parolee absconds, the case officer has 30 days to get him back. If it doesn't happen, the case is shifted to the fugitive unit.

Of the 177 escaped parolees referred to the unit last year, 138 were captured. Another 48 escapees were extradited back to Connecticut from states to which they had drifted.

"We like the title 'insurance policy,'." Bennett says. "Absconders pose a risk to public safety, so we pursue them where ever they go. We will be relentless."

But wouldn't it be better if fewer inmates who are a high-risk to abscond were let out in the first place?

"That's why we have the unit," Haggan says, adding that even in the face of budget cuts that have closed prison facilities, the fugitive unit has been maintained.

But Deborah Dozier wonders.

"To me, it seems there's too little consideration of the original victim," Dozier says. "It seems that they could prevent someone from committing another crime by making better decisions about who they release."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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