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Shawshank Escape
April 8 2010

Juvenile residential treatment centers (RTC) are not quite as secure as a detention facility, but all the doors are still locked. The grounds are still surrounded by fences, all the emergency exits are locked and on 30-second timers before they will open into the fenced areas, and all the residents are locked and restricted to their wings unless escorted. There is only one legitimate way to leave, but residents are always looking for others. They may try and go over the fence, run while being escorted to offsite facilities, kick their way out of vehicles or slip past negligent staff. Some fail, some succeed. But some are far more creative. This is the story of my own personal Shawshank Redemption.

I was a staff at one of these treatment centers. This RTC housed juveniles between the ages of 13 and 18 who were deemed by a court to need to be incarcerated, but also needed to have access to a more psychiatric environment. One of the residents, let’s call him Carl, was a resident for the second time at the age of 17. He was a smart kid, and had convinced half the staff that he was actually crazy so that they would leave him alone.

Carl and I got along pretty well.  He would follow most of the rules around me and I would give him Sudoku puzzles so he could keep himself busy. Mostly Carl stayed out of big trouble, just refused to follow directions whenever he felt like it. Being that it was his second time through, he already knew how far he could push and when to back off. His roommate on the other hand was a couple of years younger and had severe psychiatric and behavioral problems. He kept staff running to try and keep him in line. This is the kind of guy who purposely soaked his cast in the toilet and then didn’t want to have the cast changed.

The night of July 4th I was working the overnight shift. All of the residents tended to act out on any nights where there were fireworks and parties. If they behaved for most of the day, they usually were allowed to catch the early fireworks from the cafeteria windows which looked out over the city. For some this was enough, but many of the residents couldn’t calm down until the sound of distance fireworks had ceased for the night. On this particular 4th of July, Carl’s wing wasn’t doing too badly, but one of the others was. Some of the residents had created confetti and strewn it about the hallway and living areas, and one of the more violent residents was on a rampage. All extra staff were pulled from the other units and moved to the problem wing to help out. By midnight, it had started to calm down, when one of the other staff came to me and explained that Carl was spending an awfully long time in the bathroom. He would come out whenever staff requested but either he or his roommate would go back in immediately. Both he and his roommate where acting manic and his roommate was just getting more and more excited.

When Carl noticed that he had drawn the attention of more than two staff, he immediately went to bed and refused to talk to either staff or his roommate for the remainder of the night. His roommate eventually calmed down and by one in the morning everything was quiet.

The next afternoon, Carl requested to stay back in his room to take a shower. This required that a staff be left on the unit to keep an eye out and John decided to stay back on this occasion. Showers are supposed to be limited to ten minutes, but it isn’t uncommon for them to run over, particularly if there is no where the resident needs to be immediately. Fifteen minutes later, Carl still had not shut off the water. John knocked on the door, but no one answered. Rules prevent a staff from ever entering an occupied bathroom without another staff present, so John called for another staff member. I came over to give him a hand. John knocked again and announced that he was going to enter if there was no response. There was no response. We carefully opened the door and took a look around.

The shower was on, but no one was in the room.

There are no other exits from this room other than the main door. There are no closets, no cupboards or drawers, and the furniture is all nailed to the floor. The room has a window, but it is welded shut and made of Plexiglas. It also looks out into the gated yard. But that did not change the fact that there was no one in that room. We frantically searched the room and surrounding areas looking around every door and in every nook and cranny on the unit. Nothing was out of place, no doors that should be locked were unlocked or ajar and no one was hiding.

The funny thing about looking for someone is that you generally do not look up until every other area has been searched, particularly when the ceiling has a layer of plaster rather than drop tiles.

In the bathroom, there was an adolescent sized hole in the ceiling. And Carl was long gone.

When this particular building was originally constructed, it was a mental hospital and much of the security was not quite as strong as it later became. The attic was constructed to be large enough to be a storage space and each of the wings had a walkway to the center of the building that was intended to support a person. At one point someone had even tried to create an apartment for themselves in the center attic, even going so far as to construct a bathroom with a working toilet before being discovered and subsequently fired. All of this remained up there, even after the drop ceilings were replaced and access restricted.

Anyone who paid careful attention to the mandatory fire exit maps posted in the hallways might notice that there was one door other than the front door that exited the building outside of the gated areas. This room was only accessible from the outside…unless you came through the attic.

Carl’s roommate was all too happy to tell us all about what had happened now that it was over. Carl had figured out that if he threw wet toilet paper onto the ceiling, it would soften up the drywall enough that he could use his Bob Barker brand institutional comb and toothbrush to chip away at the ceiling until a large enough hole was made. He even was taking large chunks of the ceiling outside to the yard during exercise periods. He had carefully positioned the hole in the ceiling so that staff would have to completely enter the bathroom and be looking above the door in order to notice it was there.

It turns out that Carl and his roommate where both supposed to leave the night of July 4th, but didn’t feel that their absence would go unnoticed long enough for them to get out of the building. Carl’s roommate also didn’t really want to go, so while he helped create the escape route, he was acting out too much to disappear unnoticed. Carl took advantage of the afternoon lull and the cover noise of the shower to climb up into the ceiling and make his way through the dark to the center of the building. From there, all he had to do was find the right hatch in the floor to take him down into the room with the door outside the gates and run. By the time staff figured out his escape route, it was too late and he was long gone.

I don’t worry too much about Carl, even though I had no idea where he might go. Unlike a lot of other juveniles that came through the RTC, Carl paid attention and learned quickly where the limits were and how to take care of things. He didn’t let his temper take him places he didn’t want to go and he was clearly a very bright individual. I wish him all the best and hope he finds a way to use all that intelligence and ingenuity to be successful, although I sincerely hope he does it legally.

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