An inmate at the Rikers Island jail complex was able to slip away from at least four guards, climb a fence and disappear on Wednesday night, New York City officials said.
Officers quickly sealed the perimeter of the Island, and K-9 units were deployed along with a New York Police Department helicopter to search for the missing inmate, who is a burglary suspect identified by one city official briefed on the matter as Naquan Hill, 24. Mr. Hill was still at large early Thursday morning.
There was no immediate indication that the inmate was able to get off the island, which was put on lockdown.
The city official said that Mr. Hill was among six inmates who were in a recreation yard at the Anna M. Kross Center, one of the nine working jails at Rikers Island. The official said that five of the inmates appeared to distract two guards while Mr. Hill climbed over a perimeter fence.
Another city official said the inmates were being watched by three officers and a captain in a recreation yard no bigger than a handball court when Mr. Hill slipped away.
“Went out with a total of six inmates, and went back with five, and no one noticed anything wrong,’’ said the official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about a continuing investigation. “Nobody saw it. This is simply staff negligence.”
Peter Thorne, a spokesman for the Correction Department, said that around 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday officers discovered that an inmate did not return from outdoor recreation.
“A thorough investigation is underway, which includes an active search for this individual in coordination with N.Y.P.D.,” he said. “Rikers Island facilities have been placed on lockdown and we are talking to anyone who may be involved.”
Mr. Hill has at least six burglary arrests since 2010, the most recent on May 15, according to police records. He has served more than four years in state prison on burglary charges and was released last year, according to state prison records.
Officials put the complex on “red alert” the highest emergency level, meaning there was evidence that an escape had occurred.
Escapes in which an inmate makes it off the island are rare. Each jail is surrounded by walls and razor wire, with electronic gates controlled by officers. The island itself is in the middle of the East River, connected to the mainland in Queens by only a narrow bridge.
“A red alert is a rarity, and it happens when you have the high likelihood of an escape,” said Mark Cranston, a former Correction Department commissioner who spent 25 years working at Rikers.
A red alert would prompt a mobilization of the Island’s special operations units, including bloodhounds, Mr. Cranston said. Officers would move immediately to seal off the perimeter.
Mr. Cranston said that he could recall only several occasions during his tenure when inmates were able to escape from the island. One inmate sneaked out by holding on to the bottom of a bus that left the island; another was able to escape in a garbage truck, he said.
It would be almost impossible for an inmate to swim for the mainland because of the strong currents in the East River, Mr. Cranston said.