Arizona inmate escape exposes serious flaws in state's prison security, housing practice

The three inmates didn't seem to arouse the least bit of suspicion when they sneaked out of their dorm rooms and rushed to the perimeter of the medium-security prison.

Alarms that were supposed to go off didn't. No officers noticed anything amiss. And no one was apparently paying attention when the violent criminals sliced open fences with wire cutters and vanished into the Arizona desert in their orange jumpsuits.

The series of blunders surrounding the escape and the state's practice of housing hardened murderers and other violent criminals in private, medium-security prisons have placed Arizona corrections officials under intense scrutiny in recent days.

Two of the fugitives remained at large Wednesday as the manhunt entered its fifth day. Authorities believe the inmates have left Arizona and were heading east with a girlfriend who allegedly threw the wire cutters over a fence and fled with two of them.

Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan said he met Wednesday with representatives of the Utah-based prison company Management and Training Corp. and that they "have been assured that MTC is committed to addressing and correcting the security deficiences that contributed to the escape."

Ryan said a corrections security team at the prison was completing a comprehensive evaluation, and he would meet with MTC next week to finalize a plan.

Investigators were focused on how the inmates managed to go undetected for several hours around the time of the escape and why three violent criminals were allowed in a medium-security prison in the first place.

An Arizona lawmaker said the state needs to overhaul its inmate classification system, which allowed the prisoners to get put into the medium-security lockup despite their violent pasts. Corrections officials said their prison behavior was good enough that they downgraded the inmates' threat risk, clearing the way for placement in the facility.

"One thing we might have to look at is saying if you're convicted of a crime that is as serious as murder, that you are always considered a high risk," said David Lujan, a state lawmaker who unsuccessfully sought to regulate the types of inmates held in private prisons. "They may be a moderate risk to the staff when they're inside. But when you see what happens outside afterward, obviously, they're more than a moderate risk to the public."

The Arizona State Prison in Kingman sits amid nothing but a dusty field, three miles from a major east-west interstate highway.

It opened in 2004 and was designed to house repeat drug and alcohol offenders and set them on a path to rehabilitation, but eventually grew to include more serious offenders in a separate unit. That was where Daniel Renwick, 36, Tracy Province, 42, and John McCluskey, 45, plotted their escape.

Province was serving a life sentence for murder and robbery, including allegations that he stabbed his victim multiple times over money. Renwick was serving two 22-year sentences for two counts of second-degree murder, and McCluskey was doing 15 years for attempted murder, aggravated assault and discharge of a firearm. Authorities originally said McCluskey was convicted of murder, when it was in fact attempted murder.

Province has a dozen prison disciplinary infractions since 1996 — many of them drug-related. He worked in the prison's kitchen, while Province and McCluskey worked in the prison dog kennel, where they trained the animals for adoption.

The trio last was accounted for at 4 p.m. Friday, said Department of Corrections spokesman Barrett Marson. Staff noticed the men missing in a head count and after electronic sensors along the perimeter fence sounded around 9 p.m.

The local sheriff's office wasn't notified of the escape until 10:19 p.m., and state corrections officials weren't called until 11:37 p.m.

"I think there was a concern by everyone that it was after the fact," said Trish Carter, a spokeswoman for the Mohave County Sheriff's Office. "Time is of the essence during this type of incident. The faster you get there, the more likely you're able to catch these inmates who escaped the facility."

The three hopped a fence in the area of the dog kennel and used wire cutters that McCluskey's fiancee, who also is his cousin, had thrown over a fence to cut through two perimeter fences and flee.

Carl Stuart, a spokesman for MTC, indicated that the dog program might have to be suspended because of the incident. He declined to comment further on security at the 3,508-bed prison.

Province, McCluskey and his fiancee, 44-year-old Casslyn Mae Welch of Mesa, kidnapped two semi-truck drivers at gunpoint in Kingman and used the big rig to flee to Flagstaff, police said. Renwick was captured Sunday after an early morning shootout with an officer in Colorado.

Ryan has said "lax" security may have created an opportunity for the men to escape, and authorities are looking into whether prison staff members might have aided the inmates. Ryan also has said the prison contractor will "be on the hook" for costs associated with finding the fugitives.

The fugitives were among more than 115 inmates housed at the medium-security unit where others convicted murderers were held. Under their classification, they were considered a moderate risk to the public and staff. They weren't allowed to work outside the prison and were limited in their movement within the prison walls.

The men were in orange jumpsuits when they escaped, which should have been easy to spot against the desert backdrop, said Kristen Green of Phoenix, who visits an inmate at the prison.

"Guards should be on top of this, people in the control room should be on top of this," she said. "There's no way that they should have missed these guys, three of them going through a fence? This was pretty well planned."