In the summer of 1991, Michael Michell attended a Seattle Mariners game at the Kingdome. He wanted a souvenir.
While the 40-year-old Michell stood in line at the souvenir stand, a familiar man stepped in line behind. It was the Montana State Prison warden, Jack McCormick, who was vacationing with his family.
McCormick would later tell a newspaper that he recognized Michell in the line, and the chance meeting surprised them both. Michell was a recent resident of the prison, having arrived more than a decade earlier after a conviction for mitigated deliberate homicide in 1978.
What’s more is that, at the time of the baseball game, Michell was a wanted man as an escapee from a prerelease facility in Billings. McCormick knew this as the two happened upon each other in a stadium with a 59,000-person capacity.
With the help of local police, Michell was arrested, charged with escape and returned to prison. Today, he’s out and listed as a Missoula resident.
Walkaways from Billings prerelease centers have come and gone over 30 years of operation. In 2015, Billings saw a spike in walkaways — 20 men and women were placed on escape status. That’s up from 14 the previous year and as few as seven in 2011.
Many walkaways leave for minor reasons and spend just a little time away from authorities. But the nature of prerelease as a halfway house meant to ease offenders back into normal society means they carry with them the risk to abscond. It’s a tug-of-war between freedom and security, prison and society.
The incremental independence afforded to inmates sometimes has serious consequences, but Montana corrections officials remain confident in the facilities’ security.
“That’s the risk,” said Dave Armstrong, director of Alternatives Inc. “We’re not dealing with non-controversial people. We’re dealing with offenders.”
Escape can be a gray area in prerelease centers. It’s not like a prison, where the line is pretty clear. At prerelease, they’re called walkaways because they’re often slipping away during approved time out of the facility. Prerelease residents go out to search for work, go to work and leave with recreation passes, which are given for good behavior.
When a resident goes out and doesn’t report back on time, it could be anything from intentionally planning an escape to missing the bus. Sometimes, seemingly intentional walkaways might have a quick change of heart. In 2015, three reported walkaways returned soon after leaving and were not ultimately charged with escape.
Armstrong said that they take that into consideration, but each case is reported to local law enforcement and the U.S. Marshals Service. Those who don't face escape charges still face some sort of punishment. Some end up back in prison.
Involving federal law enforcement helps to locate inmates who leave the state. In November, a female walkaway was found in New Mexico after leaving a Billings facility months before. In September, U.S. Marshals and Portland police arrested Mikel Knick, a man convicted of negligent homicide. Knick had walked away from Billings prerelease a week before his arrest.
Montana law treats prerelease walkaways and prison escapes the same. The maximum penalty is 10 years, but most who are convicted from a prerelease walkaway serve three. Some return voluntarily and some are arrested. Nearly all of them end up back in custody.
“It’s remarkable how many get caught shortly after,” Armstrong said.
But during that window of escape, inmates can slip back into drug use, commit a petty crime or worse.
It took one week for John Szydlowski to be caught after he was reported as a walkaway from the Alpha House men’s prerelease facility on March 16, 2015.
But by the time of his arrest, he’d shot 22-year-old Kayla Kinder in the head. She died a day later.
Szydlowski had been convicted on drug, robbery and accountability for theft charges before serving time and making it to prerelease. He left Alpha House on March 16 for work. In following up on the walkaway, prerelease staff learned that he never actually made it to work that day and instead absconded.
On March 22, Szydlowski was arrested in the shooting of Kinder and was later convicted in the homicide. He’d also flashed a gun at another person and led police on a high-speed chase.
On Jan. 8, he pleaded guilty to the homicide and other charges, including escape. He faces 80 years in prison.
Armstrong said that Szydlowski wasn’t a discipline problem at Alpha House and reiterated that not everyone is successful in community programs. These are people who've run afoul of the law before.
While serious crimes from a prerelease walkaway are rare, it reflects the risk of the system. Kevin Olson, administrator of probation and parole for the Department of Corrections, stood by Alternatives in the Szydlowski case.
“Obviously cases like that are tragic,” he said. “In that particular case, the prerelease did everything within their normal operating procedures and following the contract language and also the procedures of reporting them.”
Olson added, “I also believe that this case is an example of the scourge of methamphetamine.”
While court documents stated that Szydlowski mentioned getting high during the arrest and a “white, crystalline substance” was found in his truck, he wasn’t charged with a drug offense in this case.
The Szydlowski case was the most extreme of the walkaways in 2015. What the 20 people who left an Alternatives facility have in common is that they were all caught.
Alternatives Inc. is the company that runs two prerelease facilities in Billings. For 35 years, it has contracted with the state Department of Corrections for its services. Its current contract will pump up to $8.5 million of state money into the nonprofit.
Between Alpha House and Passages, the women’s facility, he said that around 300 people have statuses that allow them to leave.
Alternatives also serves others in various treatment and supervision programs.
Residents are subject to various security measures. There are random room searches, head counts, urine analyses, breath tests and dog-assisted searches. Every trip away from the facility is planned and approved — if someone goes out on a job search, Alternatives signs off on each location and requires a return time.
“The public needs to understand that these are secure facilities,” Olson said. “(But) They’re not lockdown operations. These people are not locked down in cells."
The most time a resident will spend in prerelease is six months, and they’re screened before placement. Potential residents are reviewed by a Montana Department of Corrections committee, including an opinion from the parole board. In addition, a committee from Alternatives also screens applicants and makes the final decision.
Armstrong said that eight walkaways constitutes a “good year.” He was quick to point out that while 20 was a high number of walkaways in 2015, they had 1,675 total prerelease residents over that period.
“If we look at our prerelease and we look at how many people successfully reintegrate — do they work? Yeah, we think they do,” Olson said.
About three-quarters of all corrections inmates will be arrested within five years of release — 76 percent, according to a 2015 national review of studies by the Congressional Research Service. The majority of arrests are due to probation violations and similar incidents rather than new crimes.
Studies have shown that community release programs have a small but real impact on reducing recidivism rates, especially when coupled with treatment.
The Congressional Research Service report noted four cornerstone programs that make a difference. According to the studies reviewed, education and employment aid show mixed or little reduction in recidivism. However, mental health and substance abuse treatment showed the most promise in inmate success.
At Alternatives, Armstrong said that residents sign a contract that lists the consequences of escape. Photos of walkaways and notes about their apprehension are posted in common areas for residents to see.
Still, 20 people decided not to follow the program and tried to escape.
“There’s a lot of stress and pressure for the adaptation,” Armstrong said.
Alternatives is the oldest and largest private provider of prerelease services in the state. According to state data going back to 2011, only the Butte and Great Falls facilities rival the number of Billings walkaways.
“If we roll back 30 years ago, the court really had two options: send someone to prison or put them on probation and immediately on the street,” Olson said.
Throughout the decades, prerelease programs have grown following increases in the prison population. In 1991, state lawmakers passed the Montana Community Corrections Act, which updated and outlined much of the language for prerelease programs.
The conversation picked up again that fall following a riot at the Montana State Prison’s maximum security unit that left five inmates dead. Among other factors, a lengthy report on the incident pointed to overcrowding as a cause.
In a 1993 legislative committee meeting, corrections administrator Mickey Gamble said plainly that offenders needed to be diverted from the prison. At the time, lawmakers were discussing a boot camp program. Talk of other so-called "community programs," including prerelease, continued.
Armstrong, who has been with Alternatives since the beginning, said that officials arrived at crossroads during that time. Should prison capacity be upgraded, or should more emphasis be placed on community programs?
The conversation continues today amid statewide overcrowding at county jails and at prisons. A committee of industry professionals and state officials has formed to look into the data and find ways to combat the incarceration boom. Other programs, including one in Billings, aim to make changes at the judicial level.
Both Olson and Armstrong emphasized the inmates who reach prerelease are confronted with an opportunity to walk away but ultimately graduate without a major incident. Walkaways are just part of the business of rehabilitation.
“This is the responsive way to do that,” Armstrong said. “I hope people don’t lose sight of that.”