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When prisoners escape, community must know

February 07, 2009

Nearly three decades ago, the notorious Franklin brothers hacked their way out of jails in both Maryland and West Virginia.

The latter escape occurred when one brother played a harmonica to disguise the sounds of the other, who was busily sawing his way through an iron bar.

About the same time, a couple of cellmates in Morgan County were breaking out of their own confines; they made it to a bar across the street, nabbed a keg of beer and dragged it back to their cell and proceeded to have a Very Good Night.

Whimsical as they may on occasion be, jailbreaks are to be taken seriously. And if a prisoner is on the lam, the public has a right to that information, which could be a matter of life or death.

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When a convicted murderer broke out of the state prison complex south of Hagerstown last month, administrators took far too long to notify the people who lived nearby. In all likelihood, the hope was that the inmate would be rounded up with haste and no one might ever know.

But that didn't happen.

For five days he roamed the landscape and, at first, the public had no idea what was going on.

It almost needs not be stated that such offenders are desperate and pose a serious threat to the community. Fortunately, no one was at home when this inmate broke into local houses. But what if they had been? A far greater tragedy could have been the result.

We understand that the prisons keep their own house. We understand the embarrassment that is caused by an escape and the predisposition to keep such uncomfortable news quiet.

But the prisons and the public might come to this arrangement - we in the community acknowledge the good job that is performed by corrections officers each day. But administrators have the obligation to notify us the instant they discover that someone has made a break.

That means now, not a few hours after it becomes apparent that the inmate is not going to be quickly caught.

The inmate in question was a convicted murderer; he was sentenced to prison for 40 years and didn't have a lot to lose. That's a dangerous equation for people who live south of Hagerstown. Those residents deserve better than a belated notification that a killer might be headed their way.

Several ideas have been mentioned as a way of solving this problem - from troopers knocking on doors to a reverse 911 call. Even a simple e-mail blast to folks who live within five miles of the prisons might help. If a neighbor doesn't have computer access, a homeowner could drop by and give the word. That's what communities are for.

We do appreciate the fact that decades go by without a prison escape. So just give the neighborhood the common courtesy of letting us know when one does, so we have the chance to take protective measures.

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