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Changes to be made at prison

Branchville's security, notification system questioned during public meeting

April 15, 2009
New regulations are being put in place at Branchville Correctional Facility in northeastern Perry County following the prison's second escape within a year last month.

Indiana Department of Correction Commissioner Edwin G. Buss, right, talks with a concerned resident following Saturday morning’s meeting with the public at Perry Central Junior-Senior High School to address security at Branchville Correctional Facility. Photo by Chris Adams
Indiana Department of Correction Commissioner Edwin G. Buss, during a meeting with the public at Perry Central Junior-Senior High School Saturday morning, announced that the status of offenders who can be housed at BCF is changing and the prison-issued khaki jumpsuits will be replaced by brighter ones.

The medium-security facility had incarcerated offenders with 15 years or less remaining on their sentence. Now, Buss said, Branchville will be considered a low/medium-security prison and will only house offenders with eight years or less to serve.

However, asked if BCF will continue housing violent offenders, including those convicted of murder or rape, Buss said it could. Prisoners, he explained, are classified based on several factors, including the likelihood of escape and the number of beds available at the state's prisons. The latter, with no prisons being built in 10 years and 28,000 offenders now in the system, has become a serious issue, Buss said.

"To be honest with you, we're just out of maximum-security beds," he said.

IDOC, Buss said, has requested funding for 1,200 additional beds at existing maximum-security facilities, but the decision rests with the state legislature and governor.

Referring to the most recent escape, when Bobby Cockerell, Christopher Marshall and Jerry Sargent are believed to have used pliers to cut through the prison's fence following the assault of a maintenance worker in the welding shop on March 20, Buss said there was no indication the trio were a threat to escape.

"Sargent is 59 years old. We don't have many 59-year-old offenders," he said, adding all three were considered model prisoners.

The situation at the welding shop was considered secure, Buss said, calling one prison official to three offenders "almost optimal."

Gilbert Peters, superintendent of the prison, also said the work arrangement is standard at prisons throughout Indiana and that Marshall had worked with the assaulted prison official for three years without incident.

However, what BCF officials did not know until conducting an investigation of the escape, is that Marshall and Sargent had worked together at the Indiana Reformatory.

The escapees, who were captured in Nebraska on March 26, are believed to have been surrounded in the woodland around the prison, within feet of search dogs, Buss said.

However, the trio, whom Peters called "very savvy," used their familiarity with hilly, tree-covered terrain to evade foot and air patrols until they were able to steal a truck in St. Croix two days later and head to northern Kentucky.

Buss said khaki jumpsuits were issued some time ago in an effort to raise the self-esteem of offenders, but they blended in with the terrain, making it more difficult to find the escapees. New, bright jumpsuits — likely yellow and possibly with reflective material so they can be seen at night — now will be worn.

Buss added that installation of a stun fence is possible. Although expensive, the electric fence has been a successful deterrent at other facilities, he said.

In addition to the details of how the escape happened and the subsequent search, many people in the audience questioned why the public wasn't notified of the escape sooner.

One man, who lives within view of the prison, said his wife heard the escape being talked about on the police scanner at 10 a.m. local time, but he didn't receive a call from the IDOC ALERT Notification Service until 11 and that the alert stated the escape happened at 10:45.

"So, let's get the facts out," he said. "Let's get them straight before they go out to the public."

Buss said the assaulted maintenance worker was found first, but it took time before the cut fence was discovered. Therefore, he said, officials knew early that an escape was possible, but they couldn't confirm it.

Others asked about sounding severe weather sirens to notify people outside, away from their telephones, of an escape. Buss said that wouldn't work at more secluded facilities, but it "may be practical for Branchville."

Peters said the prison is also considering enacting a reverse 911 system that would place a call to everyone in the area if there is an escape, not just those who have signed up with the ALERT Notification Service.

To sign up for the ALERT Notification Service, call 1-866-949-2537.

For a list of prison zip codes, visit www.in.gov/idoc/.

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