Escape from a maximum-security Texas prison

The brazen escape of seven inmates from a maximum-security Texas prison in 2001 has quickly become the stuff of a crime thriller whose ending is not yet known. The escapees remain at large, elusive despite a huge manhunt that has intensified since the fugitives were charged with the slaying of a police officer.

But as investigators follow up more than 2,000 tips, all but a few leading nowhere, the prison break has prompted broader concerns about security inside the Texas prison system -- now the largest in the country -- and a political debate about how to respond.

The inmates escaped from the Connally Unit in South Texas. They managed to subdue several prison employees, take their clothes and escape by convincing a guard that they were maintenance workers. Mr. Stringfellow attributed the escape to ''several breakdowns'' in procedure by individual guards, which he said will be outlined in the report.

But others say that to blame the incident solely on a handful of guards ignores the larger problems facing the system, namely that too few guards are responsible for a growing number of hardened offenders serving longer sentences with less incentive to behave. Union officials representing prison guards say the Connally unit was understaffed by 22 officers at the time of the escape, including a guard who should have been positioned at the gate where the inmates left.

Prison statistics show that the number of escapes throughout the system has actually dropped since the mid-1990's. Mr. Stringfellow said that all but 1 of the 245 inmates who had escaped in the history of the state's prison system had been caught. That lone exception is currently in Mexico.

But the statistics also show that violence inside the prisons has risen sharply in recent years, with the number of attacks on guards more than doubling from 1996 to 2000, from 918 to 2,267. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported this week that the Connally Unit from which the inmates escaped had reported 752 assaults against employees since it opened in July 1995, the most of any Texas prison unit.

As the tips on the prison escapees continue to mount, none appear to have brought investigators anything solid on where the criminals might be. Unconfirmed sightings of the men, who are believed to still be together, have been reported throughout Texas and in Oklahoma, Colorado, Louisiana and New Mexico. The escapees have been charged in the killing of a police officer in the robbery of a sporting goods store on Dec. 24. A reward of $200,000 is being offered for information leading to an arrest.

based on the NYTimes article