Four inmates escaped early Wednesday from a Kansas jail where they were transferred because of overcrowding at a state prison, and three of the men — including a convicted murderer — remained on the loose by late afternoon.

The Ottawa County Jail in Minneapolis, a small town about 120 miles west of Topeka, passed an inspection before it was allowed to house prison inmates, Department of Corrections spokesman Jeremy Barclay said. The four men who escaped were among 22 inmates who'd been transferred from the Ellsworth Correctional Facility in January to help alleviate the prison's overcrowding, which has been a prickly issue in Kansas in recent years.

The Kansas Highway Patrol reported that the four men escaped around 4:45 a.m., but one was quickly apprehended. The three still at large are Santos Carrera and Eric James, both 22, and 21-year-old Drew Wade. About two dozen troopers along with a canine unit and airplane are involved in the search, authorities said.

The inmates were armed with homemade knives and overpowered guards after complaining about a broken water line in the holding cell area, Ottawa County Sheriff Keith Coleman told The Salina Journal. Coleman, who didn't immediately return messages from The Associated Press, said the inmates were able to open the cell doors and make their way outside. The guards suffered only minor injuries.

Carrera was 17 when he and two other people were convicted of first-degree murder for the deaths of a teenager and young man in Sedgwick County in March 2007. Police in Wichita, where Carrera has ties, said all were documented gang members.

James was convicted of aggravated robbery, burglary, kidnapping and criminal damage charges across three counties for crimes in February 2008, while Wade was convicted of robbery and aggravated battery, according to online prison records. Records also show the three had numerous disciplinary issues while behind bars.

"Whatever crimes they've committed are important to note, but in reality when they're trying to break free, there's no telling what could occur," Highway Patrol spokesman Ben Gardner said.

Barclay said the three escaped inmates had medium-security status and were deemed candidates for being housed outside the prison. He said the status is based on an evaluation of the individual when they enter the prison system.

The escape prompted North Ottawa County schools superintendent Larry Combs to call off classes Wednesday, and the entire town was locked down for part of the morning.

"We're a small town," Combs said. "The kids in the country would probably be fine, but if the escapees were on the streets and we have 300 kids who walk to school on a nice spring day, I felt it was in the best interest of the kids to keep them out of schools today so they're not a target."

Sandy Clanton, executive director of the Minneapolis Area Chamber of Commerce, said most people didn't seem overly alarmed, though they weren't immediately informed about the escapees' crimes.

"We knew it was fairly serious because the state patrol was here," she said. "Not a whole lot of community information is given about the inmates."

Overcrowding in Kansas' prisons has been exacerbated in recent years by budget cuts and prison closures. As of Friday, there were 87 inmates being housed in county jails under contracts to help alleviate the overcrowding, Barclay said.

Inmate counts earlier this year showed that men's prisons are housing 8,635 inmates, 266 over capacity, while women's prisons are expected to exceed capacity in about seven years, according to the Kansas Sentencing Commission. In the next decade, Kansas' prisons are projected to be short about 2,000 beds.

The Corrections Department inspects jails that apply to house state inmates based on about a dozen requirements, such as proper security measures and capacity. Barclay said the criteria list was likely to expand. Jails in Butler, Cowley, Leavenworth, Johnson and Ottawa counties house state inmates, receiving an average of $40 per day per inmate.

Lawmakers are considering providing more funding and beds in state prisons. Gov. Sam Brownback has proposed using revenue from state-owned casinos to reopen a prison facility that was closed because of budget restraints in 2009. The Republican also wants to expand contracts with county jails.

The Corrections Department would rather purchase the St. Francis Boys' Home near the prison in Ellsworth to provide 95 additional beds.

"We'd better get that done because, apparently, farming them out doesn't work," Senate Majority Leader Jay Emler, a Republican whose district includes the prison, said, adding that he's concerned that budget cuts have gone too far.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.