Nebraska, Iowa escapes put work release rules in cross hairs -
Published Monday, September 16, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 1:28 am
Policies for handling prisoners
Nebraska, Iowa escapes put work release rules in cross hairs
Recent escapes in Nebraska, western Iowa
March 29: State prison inmate Carroll W. Walker, 56, leaves the Council Bluffs Work Release Facility for his job but doesn't report to work and fails to return to the facility. He is soon apprehended by Bluffs police.

June 13: Dylan Aufdengarten, 27, an inmate at the Lincoln County Correctional Facility in North Platte, Neb., slips away while on work release. He is picked up by his girlfriend in her vehicle. Both are arrested shortly thereafter.

Aug. 8: Corrine Kucera, 34, escapes from custody in Lincoln, running from a Lancaster County work detail. She is captured a few hours later when she calls 911, complaining of chest pains.

Aug. 16: Rodney Long, 38, a prisoner in the minimum security portion of the Clarinda Correctional Facility in southwest Iowa, escapes by climbing over a 12-foot-high chain-link fence. He shoots and injures a Taylor County deputy, then breaks into a rural home, according to authorities. The ordeal ends when the homeowner shoots and kills Long.

Aug. 21: Mark D. Kuehn, 39, facing up to 100 years in prison after being convicted of felony theft and habitual criminal charges, escapes from the Thurston County Jail in Pender, Neb. He is captured the next day in Norfolk.

With only 30 days left on his sentence, Dylan Aufdengarten seemed like a low risk to escape from jail.

But the 27-year-old inmate at the Lincoln County Correctional Facility in North Platte was getting sexually explicit letters from his girlfriend, who also claimed to be pregnant, said Lincoln County Sheriff Jerome Kramer.

Knowing he would be working June 13 at the North Platte Animal Shelter, Aufdengarten made arrangements to meet his girlfriend, Jennifer C. Harmon, 29. While staff members at the shelter were distracted, he slipped away and hopped into a waiting vehicle with Harmon at the wheel, the sheriff said.

“Nonviolent offenders typically wouldn't be stupid enough to escape,” Kramer said. “He was an exception.”

A rash of similar escapes have some law enforcement officials in Nebraska and Iowa re-examining their policies for how they handle prisoners, especially those considered to be low-risk and nonviolent. In many of the recent cases, the escapees were on work release, in a work crew or in a minimum security facility.

Officials stressed that they do not want to eliminate work release or other similar programs because they help soon-to-be-released inmates prepare to re-assimilate into society.

At the Lincoln County Correctional Facility, Aufdengarten's escape has led to changes. Jail officials now switch up the work-release schedule daily to make it more difficult for inmates to make escape plans. The escape was the jail's first since it opened a new facility in 2011.

Aufdengarten was quickly apprehended. He got into an argument with his girlfriend moments after she picked him up, and she booted him from the car southeast of town. When authorities contacted her a few minutes later, Harmon told them where to find him. Both were arrested.

Not all recent escapes have been resolved so quickly, or without violence.

Rodney Long, 38, a prisoner in the minimum-security portion of the Clarinda Correctional Facility in southwest Iowa with no known history of violent behavior, escaped Aug. 16 by climbing over a 12-foot-high chain-link fence.

During his five days on the run, Long shot a Taylor County deputy who confronted him, then broke into a rural home and held the couple who lived there captive. The ordeal ended when the husband shot and killed Long. The injured deputy, Dan Wyckoff, who was wearing a protective vest, is recovering from his wounds.

Long's scheduled release date was Sept. 27, 2014, though his case had been set for review by the Iowa Parole Board, so he could have been released earlier.

Fred Scaletta, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Corrections, said Clarinda is reviewing its policies in light of Long's escape. He declined to describe any changes because they relate to security.

“Anytime we have a serious incident or critical incident, we always take a look at what happened,” he said. “I know they are considering some changes.”

The Clarinda facility is in Page County. Sheriff Lyle Palmer said he should have been alerted sooner. The prison discovered that Long was missing at 7 a.m.; the Sheriff's Office was informed later that morning.

“I would like to be notified the minute their count doesn't clear,” he said.

Palmer said he has shared his concerns with prison officials and thinks he will be “alerted a lot quicker next time.”

Scaletta said prison officials were aware of that complaint. “We are going to make an adjustment to make sure it doesn't happen in the future.”

Not all escapes have led to policy changes.

On Aug. 8, Corrine Kucera, 34, in jail on felony drug charges at Lancaster County's minimum security facility, ran away from a work crew. She was captured a few hours later, after she called 911 complaining of chest pains.

Michael Thurber, Lancaster County's corrections director, said his agency found no red flags in Kucera's case.

“We reviewed our procedures,” he said. “We aren't really seeing something that would say, 'Don't put her on a work crew.' ”

Benjamin Steiner, an assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said most institutions use risk assessment evaluations to determine an offender's likelihood of escaping, considering characteristics such as a prisoner's age, whether the inmate has a gang affiliation and whether there is any history of misconduct or recidivism.

“When you are trying to predict human behavior, there is no perfect tool,” he said. “What you are seeing is people identified, evidently, as low risk by some of these tools, or by their behavior in the institution, and they might have been false predictions.”

Steiner said it's hard to say why someone with a relatively short time left to serve would try to escape. But offenders often lack good impulse control.

“One of our tricks in terms of rehabilitating these individuals is to teach them techniques to deal with their low self-control … to think about the long-term consequences of what seem like minor actions,” Steiner said.

At least one of the recent escapes was from a county jail.

Early the morning of Aug. 21, Mark Kuehn, convicted of felony theft and habitual criminal charges and facing up to 100 years in prison, crawled out of the Thurston County Jail in Pender, Neb.

He pulled a window air conditioner from its moorings and squeezed between the bars. Kuehn, 39, is 5-feet-3-inches tall and weighs about 130 pounds, said Sheriff Shelly Perez.

“The spaces between those bars are 6½ by 11½ inches ... and that's what he managed to escape out of,” Perez said.

Authorities nabbed him the following day in Norfolk.

The solution was obvious to jail officials: “We have welded more bars on there,” Perez said.

The county is also looking at other improvements. Kuehn climbed a 6-foot-tall chain-link fence during his escape, so Perez said the jail may top the fence with razor wire.

Steiner emphasized that the recent escapes are isolated incidents.

“They do not reflect the vast majority of the inmate population,” he said. “A good many people who are incarcerated do turn their lives around.”

Contact the writer: Andrew J. Nelson    |   402-444-1310    |  

Andrew writes about virtually everything – crime, features, legislative news and small-town controversy – happening in Iowa.

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