SAN FRANCISCO — Chagrined federal prison officials Thursday defended their practice of allowing selected inmates to travel unsupervised from one prison to another, the type of unescorted trip Ronald J. McIntosh used to escape a federal prison near here before returning in a hijacked helicopter to free his inmate girlfriend.
Such trips, called furlough transfers, in which presumably low-risk inmates travel alone on public transportation from one prison to another, are an established and efficient management tool, the officials said.
Last year, for example, furlough transfers were used to shuttle 8,168 federal prisoners around the country--usually on buses, although airplanes are used on longer journeys.
Hiring additional officers to accompany those low-risk prisoners, or buying a fleet of buses to move them in groups, would be prohibitively expensive, the officials said.
"Really, what it does is save a lot of money," said Kathy Morse, a federal prisons spokeswoman in Washington. "But I guess we might have read this guy (McIntosh) wrong."
The cost of hunting down escapees is not known because authorities are not sure of the number of prisoners lost during such transfers.
Prisoners lost during furlough transfers are lumped into a single category with those who do not return from work furloughs and personal furloughs or who walk away from minimum-security prison camps. There were 138 escapes in this category last year.
McIntosh, 45, was a typical candidate for furlough transfer because he had no history of violence or escape, only a short time left to serve and was going from the low-security section of the Federal Corrections Institute at Pleasanton to the minimum-security Federal Prison Camp at Lompoc, said Michael Benov, executive assistant director of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons' western regional office.
"Typically, we look to see where they are going," Benov said in explaining the criteria used to judge candidates for such transfers. "Then we look at their history and other factors, such as how much time they have left, whether he is wanted by other agencies, and whether he or she was a voluntary surrender--that is, if he followed a judge's order to turn himself in to begin serving his sentence."
McIntosh, who co-founded the First International Trading Co., then bilked 2,500 investors out of $16 million in 18 months in the early 1980s, fit almost all the categories perfectly, including the last one.
"He was a voluntary surrender," Benov said. "He could have fled at that point (between his conviction and the start of his prison term) and didn't."
The federal marshals hunting McIntosh and the San Francisco prosecutors who convicted him are particularly worried about his flight because more than $1.7 million from the fraudulent commodities scheme has not been found.
With that money at his disposal--and perhaps $100,000 still unaccounted for from the bank robbery career of the other escaped convict, Samantha D. Lopez--the fugitive couple could be particularly difficult to track.
Money Not Considered
Benov said the con man's potential money cache was not considered when McIntosh was given a bus ticket and dropped off alone at the Greyhound station in Livermore, Calif., not far from the Pleasanton prison.
"We can't base our decision on hearsay evidence," Benov said. "We don't know what (money) is actually out there, so we couldn't use that as a criteria. And we still don't know that he actually has access to any money."
When he fled, McIntosh was being moved from Pleasanton, an "administrative facility" for both male and female inmates convicted of a variety of crimes, to the Federal Prison Camp in Lompoc, an unfenced campus for nonviolent male offenders nearing the end of their prison terms.
Those facilities are two of six federal correctional facilities in California. In addition, there is a maximum-security penitentiary in Lompoc--a quarter-mile from the prison camp--as well as the medium-security prison on Terminal Island, a minimum-security camp in the desert at Boron and the mixed-use Metropolitan Correctional Facility in downtown San Diego.
There are 4,824 federal prisoners in California, slightly more than 10% of the 41,500 men and women in federal prisons across the country.
Pleasanton houses 680 inmates, about 60% of them women, who are serving time for everything from mail fraud to attempted assassination of the President. The facility has been described as a college campus bounded by razor wire fences.
The Lompoc camp also resembles a college campus, with most of its activities confined to two main buildings connected at one end in a "U" shape. There are no fences, but the 599 inmates are closely watched and frequently counted, prison officials said.