PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — To help their re-entry into society, prisoners at the Renewal Center downtown are encouraged to leave during the day to work jobs.

But although they’re subjected to pat downs and breathalyzer tests when they return, they’re pretty much free to not come back or leave at any time.

“This program at Renewal is not a locked facility,” said Renewal’s Doug Williams.

Work release means they’re on their honor but many – 27 already this year – have chosen to walk away or escape – causing a potential danger to the public.

In January, Renewal inmate Edwin Wylie-Biggs forced Clairton schools into lockdown and a standoff with county SWAT after sheriff deputies tried to arrest him for escape, but Renewal calls this an isolated case.

“Ninety percent and above individuals successfully complete the program,” Williams said. “They benefit through treatment. Recidivism is greatly reduced and they return to society and their family successfully.”

The county contracts with Renewal to house non-violent offenders, but that hasn’t stopped state and federal parole boards from reducing their overcrowding problems by sending violent criminals there.

Sheriff Bill Mullen, whose deputies must arrest those escapees, says this is especially unsettling given that Renewal is just a stone’s throw away from Point Park University.

“If you look at some of the people that we’ve been going after, they’re not all non-violent offences,” Mullen said. “Some of them are wanted for aggravated assault, some of them are for gun violations.”

Sheehan: “Isn’t it kind of dangerous to have violent offenders downtown in this facility, especially close to a university?”

“Once again, I think even when we used to have sex offenders in the program it was always most appropriate for an individual to be integrated through a system of treatment and rehabilitation of us rather than coming directly back into your communities.”

But County Executive Rich Fitzgerald says a work-release program in downtown Pittsburgh is no place for violent prisoners.

“We’ll try to work with our state and federal officials to make sure that we don’t have violent criminals who are coming and going freely,” he said. “That’s not what the intent of the program was.”

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