Right now, there are 44 escaped New Jersey inmates walking free. Of those, 28 escaped in the last year.

Nearly all of those who've slipped away from the state Department of Corrections were residents of halfway houses and similar facilities. Of those currently wanted by the state, none have broken out of an actual prison in decades.

"If an inmate wants to escape from a halfway house, they really can," DOC spokesman Matt Schuman said. "They're out at their job, or at a school, and they don't come back."

This May saw a rare exception to the pattern — when Arthur Buckel's escape from Bayside State Prison in Hammonton prompted a multi-state manhunt. Buckel, convicted and sentenced for for aggravated assault and burglary — escaped from a work detail at the Ancora Hospital of Bayshore State Prison in South Jersey. He'd previously served jail time for killing his girlfriend's baby.

That massive search ended in his recapture. A week after he escaped, a motorist reported seeing someone in the woods near a Garden State Parkway rest stop. A 20-year Lacey police veteran, detective Keith Pearce, tracked Buckel down nearby and held him at gunpoint as a state corrections officer took him into custody.

There's little to stop the vast majority of prisoners who escape police custody from doing so. While away at jobs or in classes, they're meant to check in by phone several times a day, but some simply disappear.

Schuman said many reappear, as well. Some are as little as a few hours late for their check-ins — they become fugitives, technically, but only for short times. That leaves New Jersey's state's escapee list in a constant state of flux.

Only some inmates qualify for New Jersey's halfway house programs — they have to show good behavior in prison, and they have to be approaching the ends of their sentences. But one who fails to return and is eventually caught could risk another three to give years on his or her sentence, if charged as an escapee, Schuman said.

"That's what stops the vast majority from doing it," he said. "If they violate that privilege, they could go back to prison."

As of Tuesday, 1,871 inmates were residents of halfway houses; another 796 were housed in assessment centers that can serve as transition points to the halfway house program. It's rarer to escape from the assessment centers, where security is tighter, Schuman said.

Of those being sought, the last inmate to escape from a prison was Enrique Silva, sentenced in 1989 on drug possession and distribution charges. He escaped from the Riverfront State Prison in 1995.

Most wanted

Joanne Chesimard
Joanne Chesimard (FBI)

The Garden State’s most notorious fugitive may be Joanne Chesimard, who now goes by the name of Assata Shakur in her adopted country of Cuba.

Chesimard was convicted in the 1973 murder of State Police Trooper Werner Foerster. She was sentenced to life in prison but broke out of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton on Nov. 2, 1979, with the help of three visitors who held up the guards at gunpoint.

The State Police and Gov. Chris Christie in the past year have spotlighted the state’s efforts to return Chesimard to justice as the United States has begun thawing its Cold War-era relations with the island nation’s communist regime.

Catch him if you can

One of New Jersey's prison fugitives — George Wright — is essentially a free man.

Wright had been sentenced to 30 years in prison after pleading no contest to a charge that he was part of a gang that shot and killed a gas station owner in a robbery in 1962 in Wall.

On Aug. 22, 1970, he and another prison inmate, George Brown, who was serving time for armed robbery, simply walked out of Bayside State Prison in Cumberland County while guards weren’t looking.

Two years later they and several others hijacked a plane and held the passengers for $1 million in ransom — which they got.

They were allowed to switch planes in Boston and took a flight to Algeria, which returned the plane and ransom money, but gave cover to the hijackers.

Brown served time in France for air piracy but the United States was not able to extradite him.

Wright, meanwhile, was captured September 2011 in Portugal, where he had raised a family. A Portuguese court denied his extradition, saying he was a Portuguese resident and that the statute of limitations on his crime had expired — which means he'll never again sit behind bars in New Jersey as long as he lives out his life in Portugal.

— With reporting by Louis C. Hochman and Sergio Bichao