Allen Oakwood Correctional Institution in Lima, Ohio, is an 18-acre prison that houses mostly minimum and medium security offenders. The population of 1,645 spends their days participating in apprenticeship programs, garden projects and community service activities like bicycle repair and training abandoned dogs for adoption.
As prisons go, it is rather tame, and Warden Kevin Jones likes it that way. But what he doesn’t like is the avalanche of publicity his institution is now getting in the media thanks to the Sept. 11 escape of the notorious Ohio high school shooter, Thomas “T.J.” Lane III.
Lane is one of those criminals whose 15 minutes of infamy never seem to end. He was convicted of killing three students at Chardon High School, east of Cleveland on Feb. 27, 2012. He swaggered into the school cafeteria that day with a .22 caliber handgun and started shooting randomly. After the rampage, Demetrius Hewlin, 16, Daniel Parmertor, 16, and Russell King Jr., 17, lay dead. Lane, 17 at the time, didn’t even attend Chardon.
He was sentenced to three life terms. End of story, or so Ohio residents and the nation thought. But Lane wasn’t finished with the spotlight. More should have been expected from the teenager who wore a shirt emblazoned with “Killer” at his sentencing. Authorities tucked him away at Allen Oakwood Correctional Institution and hoped for the best, but Lane didn’t adjust to prison life.
In prison, he was disciplined seven times for infractions such as urinating on a wall, getting a tattoo and refusing to carry out assignments. He was the prototypical rebel without a cause. “A lot of these young guys coming into prison want to prove themselves,” an ex-con who did several years inside says. “It doesn’t matter if they have a big case or not. On the inside they are nobody until they do something big.”
Struggling with his identity and hanging out with older inmates such as Clifford Opperud, who was doing 12 years for aggravated robbery, burglary and kidnapping, Lane tried to find his place in the netherworld of corruption and violence. Instead of taking the right route he stayed on the wrong course.
As other prisoners took advantage of the rehabilitation programs offered, Lane and Opperud secretly planned an escape.
At most medium security prisons across the nation, escape isn’t that difficult. It is surprising more inmates don’t exploit the lax security. At Allen Oakwood, there were only 284 total security staff spread out over three shifts—hardly enough staff to watch over 1,600 inmates, day and night. But most prisons run themselves and most prisoners don’t try to escape.
Lane was not most prisoners.
But even escaping from a medium security prison requires planning, if you want to do it right. Staying free is the hardest part, as Lane found out. Transportation, places to stay, money, accomplices all have to be in place.
“I never tried to escape because I never had the resources or things set up how I needed on the outside,” the ex-con says. “I could have escaped several prisons I was at, but what is the point if you don’t have things set up right?”
Was Lane’s escape attempt made on impulse? Did he see an opportunity and take it? Why do it if he knew he couldn’t succeed and eventually be caught? (He was, not even six hours after he scaled a fence and broke out.) Did Lane really scale a barbwire fence? Could it be a case of lax security or even that Lane was afforded a security level he didn’t deserve? Are authorities covering up the true circumstances of his prison break?
One explanation for the haphazard escape attempt is that the older convict, Opperud, who knew his chances of freedom were much greater if he escaped with Lane, manipulated the younger prisoner. With all the heat on the high-profile Ohio high school shooter, he could better evade capture.
“That’s what I would have done,” the ex-con says. “Get the kid to come with me and take all the heat so I can fly free.”
Lane was found 100 yards away outside a church, and it seems as if he wasn’t really trying to escape after all. It’s obvious he didn’t have any real plan or preparations in place.
So, did Opperud make the plan and then get the impulsive Lane to come with him at the last second? A possibility, but it didn’t work out. Opperud and another unnamed inmate were captured shortly after Lane.
“I don’t think the true facts of the escape will ever come out,” the ex-con says.
Prisons are notoriously tightlipped when it comes to negative publicity, and officials often act with a swaggering confidence. But if mistakes were made, then they should be addressed.
There had apparently been warnings of an escape attempt just the day before, and the union representing employees in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections issued a statement calling procedures at Allen Oakwood into question.
“We have serious concerns about security at this facility and why more was not done after we warned DR&C officials about some major security risks,” said Ohio Civil Service Employees Association President Christopher Mabe.
The union said it had previously raised concerns about low staffing levels and inadequate inmate security levels. Two of the escaped inmates had been assigned high-level security classifications, but were housed in a unit with low-level security inmates, the statement said.
Ohio prison authorities said that Lane had been assigned “the highest level security grade typically given” to first time offenders.
Looming over the whole sage is the question: What was Lane, a young man doing three life sentences, doing in a medium security prison?
“That's something we'll have to sit down and take a look at,” Jones said. “There's a lot of questions, but it was determined that Allen Oakwood was where he was supposed to be.”
Lane spilled no secrets when taken into custody, so we probably will never know. But the citizens of Ohio were outraged at the escape and school officials closed Chardon High School on Friday. Chardon is about 190 miles from Lima.
"It's a trigger," said district spokeswoman Ellen Ondrey. "It takes everyone back to 2/27 and what was happening that day."
According to the Los Angeles Times, all three escapees have been taken to the Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown, where authorities will make sure they can never make another attempt. Lane will likely be on 24-hour lockdown. He could be thrown into “the hole” or a Special Housing Unit, as it’s called, somewhere and will be lucky if he ever sees the light of day again.
Prisons in our country aren’t proactive; they are reactive. It’s likely the public will never know how Lane really escaped. The backlash and bad publicity from the escape is much more than the warden ever wanted, but he will have to deal with it.
“Obviously I'm not happy that it's happened,” Jones said. “No warden in my position would like something like this to happen.”