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Human error blamed for Mount Olive prison escape attempt

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A botched head count during a recent unsuccessful escape attempt by three convicted murderers left their absence undetected for more than an hour as they tried to break out of West Virginia's maximum security prison, state Corrections Commissioner Jim Rubenstein said Monday.

Rubenstein told a House-Senate oversight committee that a 10 p.m. head count on July 17 somehow failed to reveal that William Keith "Bobby'' Lowe, Daniel Smith and Stephen Wilson weren't in their units at the Mount Olive Correctional Complex.

"They really weren't there,'' Rubenstein said. "The official investigation will indicate exactly what happened and what occurred. ... But it's obvious there was some human error somewhere within all of this.''

Rubenstein also said the would-be escapees cleared at least one interior fence during their attempt. But he stressed that the three were located within around 15 minutes once they were discovered missing following an 11:30 p.m. head count.

Lowe and Wilson tried to run from officers before they all were captured inside the 82-acre complex, the commissioner said.

"At no time did they breach any outer security,'' Rubenstein told legislators. "At no time was there a danger to the community or the area.''

But the escape attempt hits Mount Olive as it struggles to keep enough guards on staff amid a statewide inmate crowding crisis.

With dozens of vacancies plaguing Mount Olive on any given day, remaining staff face mandatory 60-hour workweeks.

That prison and the state's other Division of Corrections facilities are at capacity, with around 6,900 inmates, forcing more than 1,800 convicted felons to serve at least part of their sentences in regional jails instead. The agency's overall staff turnover was nearly 17 percent last year. The American Correctional Association says West Virginia ranks in the top 10 states for turnover and also suffers the nation's worst inmate-to-guard ratio in prisons.

West Virginia's starting salary for a full-time correctional officer is just $22,584 -- the nation's second-worst, ahead of Mississippi but only by about $500 -- and below the federal poverty level for a family of four.

Quizzed by lawmakers, Rubenstein said thorough head counts are a fundamental lesson taught at the state's basic training academy for corrections officers.

"When you do formal counts, you count flesh, he said. "You make sure that there's a person that you're counting.''

Rubenstein also spoke with optimism about the recently launched, comprehensive review of West Virginia's corrections and public safety systems by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. This project of the Justice Center at the nonpartisan Council of State Governments, has won praise for its work in more than a dozen other states.

After their capture, the three prisoners were confined in the prison's segregated unit for high-risk inmates, Rubenstein said. Investigations by corrections officials and by the State Police continue, he said. While these reviews so far show that the three had a "thought-out'' plan to escape, Rubenstein said they did not appear to have a way to overcome the arrays of razor wire on the double sets of perimeter fencing.

Mount Olive's security features also include electronic sensors on those fences as well as guarded watchtowers. The nearest town, Montgomery, is 7 miles away.

Lowe, 38, is serving a life sentence for clubbing 55-year-old Roy Glen Loyd to death at the Rustic Motel in Kanawha County in 2003.

Smith, 26, and the 23-year-old Wilson were convicted in the 2009 slaying of Huntington Rev. Mark McCalla. Smith is serving a life sentence and becomes eligible for parole in 2023. Wilson is scheduled to be released in 2088, at the age of 100.

Lowe previously attempted to escape from prison in 2005, officials have said.

 


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