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Convicted murderer's escape raises questions about Pennsylvania county prison inspections

The capture of convicted murderer Danelo Cavalcante two weeks after he escaped from a prison in Pennsylvania has brought relief to the local community, but questions remain about security measures at county prisons in the state.

When asked about concerns surrounding Cavalcante's escape from the Chester County Prison, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro told ABC News on Tuesday, "That's going to be an issue for local officials here in Chester County to determine how that happened, but it's absolutely unacceptable."

Pennsylvania requires state inspections of county prisons like the one from which Cavalcante escaped, but those inspections are not required to include checking facilities for escape risk, according to state law.

Three recent high-profile breakouts from Pennsylvania county prisons each occurred less than 15 months after these mandatory inspections.

"These inspections are based on minimum regulatory requirements for operation and are not a security or vulnerability analysis," Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spokesperson Maria Bivens told ABC News.

PHOTO: Danelo Cavalcante was taken into custody on Sept. 13, 2023, after escaping from a prison in Chester County, Pa., two weeks prior. (no credit)
PHOTO: Danelo Cavalcante was taken into custody on Sept. 13, 2023, after escaping from a prison in Chester County, Pa., two weeks prior. (no credit)

"The Chester County jail is run by Chester County officials. They'll answer those questions as to what occurred and what changes are ultimately going to be made," Shapiro said at a press conference on Wednesday morning. "They obviously have a lot of work to do there."

"Certainly the state Department of Corrections will be here to assist in any reviews or in any other work that they need done to make sure that facility is secure," Shapiro added.

Two inspectors are responsible for checking all 73 of Pennsylvania's county prisons.

The state regulations require inspectors to check county prisons for things like personnel training, prison policies, use of force, food service and sanitation.

Although the requirements say that county prisons must have a plan for what to do in response to an escape, they do not have any provision for ensuring that inspectors check facilities during their visits to detect areas that could be vulnerable for escapes so that potential breakouts could be prevented.

MORE: Pennsylvania fugitive Danelo Cavalcante has eluded authorities in Brazil for years

Pennsylvania's county prison requirements appear to be similar to those in several other states, though each state has its own policies. North Carolina, for example, does have a state requirement that outdoor exercise areas at county jails are "enclosed by physical barriers that prevent inmate escape."

The Chester County Prison was last inspected by the DOC in September 2022, and, based on Pennsylvania's requirements for state inspections, the facility passed with "full compliance," Bivens said.

Cavalcante escaped nearly a year after that inspection from a recreation yard in the prison after crab-walking up a wall, running across a roof, scaling a fence, and getting through razor wire, officials previously announced. He was the second inmate to break out this way in less than four months, with additional razor wire being installed in the area in between the two escapes.

"Information available regarding the circumstances of this escape does not indicate that it was related to noncompliance with the regulations," Bivens said.

Pennsylvania law allows for the DOC to order an immediate inspection in response to an incident such as an escape. Bivens said that one has not been ordered yet.

Across the state, the Warren County Prison was last inspected by the DOC in April 2022. In July of this year, alleged murderer Michael Burham escaped from that facility. He was captured after a weeklong search.

Not far from Chester County, the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center was last inspected by the DOC in October 2022. In May of this year, two detainees, including alleged murderer Ameen Hurst, broke out of that prison. They were captured within days.

PHOTO: The escape of inmate Danelo Cavalcante from a prison in West Chester, Pennsylvania, U.S. is seen in a screen grab from a video released Sept. 6, 2023. (Chester County District Attorney via Reuters)
PHOTO: The escape of inmate Danelo Cavalcante from a prison in West Chester, Pennsylvania, U.S. is seen in a screen grab from a video released Sept. 6, 2023. (Chester County District Attorney via Reuters)

Jeff Mellow, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, told ABC News that escapes as a whole are extremely rare, but that research indicates that county jails and prisons experience more breakouts than larger long-term lockups like state and federal prisons.

"Oftentimes they have fewer resources than state and federal facilities," Mellow said. "So many of our jails and prisons across the country are understaffed and they are just not being resourced properly"

He noted that there is only so much that can be done to prevent escapes.

"Regardless of how secure you can make a facility with your perimeter fencing, your razor wire, your video cameras, individual officers, and watchtower, there are always, though not as often as many in the public think, critical incidents that will occur," Mellow said.

Now that Cavalcante is back in custody, officials are starting to look at ways to limit the possibility of a critical incident like this one happening again, with Gov. Shapiro stating on Wednesday that he is confident that Chester County leaders will get that done.

"I of course want answers, like everyone else. We deserve that," state Rep. Christina Sappey, whose district includes the Chester County Prison, told ABC News. "I look forward to the result of a thorough investigation and if that points to the need for legislation to ensure this never happens again, I will work with my colleagues to get that done."

Convicted murderer's escape raises questions about Pennsylvania county prison inspections originally appeared on abcnews.go.com