Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Escaping the pen with stroke of pen

Who knew it was this easy to break out of the Big House — at least in Florida, where is appears Deputy Barney Fife is running the Department of Corrections.

To pull off the "Great Escape," all a couple of convicted murderers serving life terms needed were official-looking release forms and a forged signature of a judge. Then guards at Franklin Correctional Institution, otherwise known as The Sieve, flung open the cell doors to wish Joseph Jenkins and Charles Walker a heartfelt au revoir, sayonara, farewell and buh-bye.

And all this time we thought to escape a prisoner might have to trudge through several hundred yards of sewage as Tim Robbins did in The Shawshank Redemption. Or brave the treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay as Clinton Eastwood did in Escape from Alcatraz. Or land a helicopter in the exercise yard of a Mexican prison, as Charles Brosnon did to abscond with Robert Duval in Breakout.

Not in Florida. All that was required to spring Jenkins and Walker was a copy machine and good penmanship. Can't wait to see the movie version of this — "Papillon Meets the Office."

Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey did concede there appeared to be an itty-bitty flaw in the system that would allow paperwork to land in the office of Franklin Warden Buford T. Justice without anyone saying, "Hey, wait a minute here. Before we release two brutal killers it might be a good idea to double-check the documents."

"I can't tell you with 100 percent degree of certainty that it hasn't been done before; and that will part of the review," Bailey promised.

Gee, thanks a bunch.

If one had just managed to slip away from a life sentence and had a big head start, wouldn't one have vamoosed to Mexico?

Being a criminal mastermind has its limitations. It is one thing to successfully pull off an escape. But once outside the prison walls — then what? Jenkins and Walker would need money. They would need help. They would need some smarts. On that score, they turned out to have the criminal savvy of Woody Allen's hapless bank robber Virgil Starkwell in Take the Money and Run.

The two killers were astute enough to return to the Orlando area and walk into a sheriff's office to register as recently released felons. But it appears they didn't realize that by registering, the families of their victims would be notified of their release. The families were not amused.

Only then did Florida's Inspector Clouseaus learn they had two escapees with a huge head start.

With the help of the U.S. Marshal's Service, Jenkins and Walker were recaptured at a Panama City Beach motel, where they were awaiting someone to arrive to give them a ride to Atlanta. Memo for future consideration: Next time, consider taking a bus.

Except there will likely be no next time.

Gov. Rick Scott has promised to find a way to make sure escape by bureaucracy doesn't happen again. And state Sen. Rob Brantley, R-Inspector Javert, who chairs the Senate Criminal and Justice Appropriations subcommittee, has promised a thorough review of how the prison break occurred.

You don't need political posturing and committee hearings in full harrumph to see what Jenkins and Walker saw: that paper-pushing apparatchiks would accept a reasonably legitimate-looking document ordering the release of two murderers with less curiosity than Sgt. Schultz.

It would be a simple fix to require prison officials to contact any judge who orders the release of a convicted murderer and verify the documents.

That would be a good start to avoid The Bunglesome Prison Blues.

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