When a driver for Rochelle Transportation arrived at Mama Dip’s restaurant to pick up three Orange Correctional work-release inmates on June 23, one of them, Dennis Wade, was nowhere to be found. Wade disappeared in the time between his shift ending and the arrival of the van that would take him back to the prison camp. Joe Council, who worked with Wade in the kitchen that night, looked for him for several minutes before determining that the inmate had walked off into the Chapel Hill night. The van driver returned to the minimum-security facility in Hillsborough without Wade, who, four months before his release date, became a fugitive.

Wade was one of several inmates who earlier this summer told the Independent about challenges that Orange Correctional prisoners face when looking for affordable ways to get back and forth to their jobs (see “Orange Correctional inmates getting taken for a ride,” July 12, at www.indyweek.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A34062). Wade said Rochelle Transportation charged high rates that prevented him and others from saving money to prepare for release; prison officials say George Rochelle is still providing the service–at the same prices.

Wade’s escape prompted prison officials to pull all inmates from their jobs at Mama Dip’s restaurant.

Mildred Council, the matron of the eponymous soul food eatery, lost two breakfast cooks that morning. She considered closing the restaurant. “I think they done me wrong,” Council says. “They took two people away who didn’t do anything.”

“It takes nine months to really train a breakfast cook,” she added. “They crippled me for days and my kitchen is still not right yet.”

The incident underscores another potential, if obvious, shortcoming in the work-release program aside from the cost of transportation: oversight.

Prison officials trust private citizens to look after inmates. Most often, the arrangement works fine. But every once in a while, someone slips through the cracks.

Wade’s time on the lam was short-lived. He turned himself in to Carrboro police the same night he fled. Since he was a work-release inmate and hadn’t been free a full 24 hours, his punishment was handled within the prison system rather than through the courts: Four months were tacked onto his sentence and he was shipped off to a close-security prison in Caledonia, where he now serves his time in disciplinary segregation.

Council, who served on Orange Correctional Center’s Community Resource Council for about 20 years, has employed inmates without any problems since last fall. Wade started working in January. When prison officials approached Council as a potential employer for the work-release program, she agreed because, she says, she’s concerned about the plight of black men.

Michael Thumm, the superintendent at Orange, describes Wade as a habitual felon who was far from a model inmate.

“I’ll bet you most minimum security prisons wouldn’t have given him a chance,” says Thumm, for whom Wade was the first escapee in four years. “I noted when I approved him for work release that he needed close supervision … I put Dennis at Mama Dip’s because I thought she would provide good supervision.

“We had trained some people to be supervisors, checked backgrounds, made sure they were of reasonable character and judgment,” he says. “The people who were trained were not there that evening.” Council and one of her family members were the two designated supervisors.

“[They] left a person who was not properly trained,” Thumm says. “He allowed an inmate to go on a break and forgot about him.”

The night’s events surprised Council, who left the restaurant early that evening. “It was the oddest thing to me,” she says. She says Wade normally mingled for a bit before going outside to meet the van. “They sit out there waiting a long time,” she added. “They were trustworthy as far as I was concerned.

“I felt it was unfair to say they were unsupervised,” Council says. “We’re always around them.”

Superintendent Thumm says he considered public safety above all else. “The guys that were there had to pay the price,” he says of the two other prisoners who couldn’t return to Mama Dip’s after Wade’s escape. “Life is like that sometimes.”