The old gang gathered round, astonished that he had showed up in the neighborhood.

“I busted out,” he said, puffing out his chest. “They can’t keep me caged up.”

Boy, this was like being in a James Cagney movie. Everyone was keen to find out how he pulled it off.

“I just walked up the street and called a cab,” he explained. “See, I had a job on a construction site.”

“You mean you escaped from a work-release program?” said one. It was at this stage that his former partners in crime started drifting off, shaking their heads.

This scene may be imaginary, but it is hardly far-fetched. Convicts who are almost free, living and working in the outside world as the end of their sentences draws near, keep choosing to take it on the lam. Last year 57 did so. In 2014, it was 91; in 2013, 106.

Those numbers might seem to suggest that our inmates are not so dumb as they used to be, but a just-released Legislative Auditor’s report attributes the decline to tighter supervision. If convicts hand-picked for work release are prepared to throw the opportunity away, chances may not be great that the incarcerated masses are going to turn their lives around.

The state Department of Corrections’ Transitional Work Program, as it is formally known, certainly helps to reduce recidivism, and no wonder. Cons who get a place in it are released from jail or prison to the care of a sheriff or contractor and put to work for a private company, sometimes even offshore. They get to keep some of the money they earn, so they will not be broke when their sentences are up. They may develop skills that will make them find jobs later. This may quite not be freedom, but it beats the pen hands-down.

Making a dash for it from a work site may sometimes be quite easy — except for convicts assigned to an oil rig in the Gulf — but only a fool would do it. You’re almost certain to get caught and maybe suffer a few dog bites in the backside. Then you’ll be taken back to the pen not only to serve the rest of your sentence but to do extra time for trying to escape.

It may sometimes take a while before the cops come looking for you — the Legislative Auditor found that Corrections does not always know the whereabouts of work-release convicts — but they’ll probably get you in the end. Taking it on the lam makes sense only if you really miss prison life.

Only a small percentage walk away from work-release, but even one escape attempt is hard to fathom, for this is that rare state program that is a boon all round. Taxpayers benefit because the state pays a maximum per diem of $15.39 for work release participants, whereas sheriffs housing regular state prisoners get $24.39. Penitentiary inmates cost the state $52.51 a day. Taxpayers also shoulder fewer prison costs, since only 12 percent of work-release graduates reoffend in the first year, whereas the rate for state offenders released from parish jails is 18 percent.

The sheriffs and private concerns with work-release contracts must provide board and clothing for the convicts, but get to keep 64 percent of their wages, which last year came to $35 million. Commissaries selling tobacco, candy and other necessities also turn a tidy profit. Including the state per diems, revenues last year were $55 million. As of December last year, 3,052 convicts were in the work-release program.

If this makes good business sense for program administrators, it does too for the employers. Not only do they experience the warm glow of assisting offenders readjust to society, but they save on labor costs, health insurance, paid vacation and retirement benefits not being required.

As for the cons, the idea is that they should have at least $1,000 in their pockets when they get out. Plenty of them not only achieve that, but manage to send money to their families. Wages in the work-release program range from $7.38 to $17.08 an hour.

Anyone who runs away from that must really miss prison life.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.