Staff cuts at O.C. jail made escape easier, deputies' union contends

Staff cuts at an Orange County jail removed obstacles that would have otherwise prevented three dangerous inmates from breaking out last month, according to a lawsuit filed by sheriff's deputies.   

In court papers filed Thursday, the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs charged that staffing cuts led to the removal of a rooftop guard; a failure to patrol utility tunnels that doubled as escape routes; and the smuggling of saw blades into the maximum security facility, among other claims.

"A more violent inmate population and the recent significant staffing reductions at the Central Men’s Jail forced us to ... file this lawsuit," said Tom Dominguez, president of the union. "This is about the safety of our members, the jail staff, the inmates and ultimately the public we are sworn to protect."

The lawsuit seeks to hire replacement staff and require the department to talk with union representatives about changes at the jail.

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Inmates Hossein Nayeri, Bac Duong and Jonathan Tieu escaped their 4th-floor dormitory by cutting through metal grating and steel bars and scurrying along a plumbing shaft, according to authorities. Eventually, they emerged on the jails' rooftop where they removed a section of razor wire and then descended five stories to freedom on braided bedsheets. 

About 15 hours had passed before guards discovered their absence, and the escapees spent more than a week on the lam before they were captured.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has since initiated an internal affairs investigation into the escape. Authorities have declined to comment on details of that investigation, but acknowledge that changes will be made to the jail.

The union lawsuit points out numerous weaknesses in jail security.

Weeks before the escape, reciprocating saw blades were found in prisoner holding areas on two occasions, according to the lawsuit. The blades were designed to cut metal and wood.

“Some of the deputies who worked in the Central Men’s Jail during that time frame were unaware of the discovery of these dangerous and potentially deadly weapons,” the lawsuit said.

Although deputies used to monitor the jail rooftop throughout the day, the lawsuit claims that the department changed that practice last fall. Now, it is only monitored during the first half of the day.

“Staffing levels have also significantly reduced or completely eliminated daily plumbing tunnel checks,” the suit said.

Union officials say the jail's most experienced, most highly trained deputies have been removed and replaced by civilians. They also say that construction contractors entering the jail do not submit to an inventory of their equipment.

Without such equipment checks, it was impossible to tell if workers were leaving behind tools inadvertently, they said.

The deputy's union also accused the department of equipping guards with unreliable radios.   

“Jingling keys and pounding footsteps are a cause for alarm for deputies, indicating a deputy is in a hurry somewhere and may need assistance,"  the lawsuit said. "The lack of reliable communication inside Central Men’s Jail does not go unnoticed by inmates.”

Sheriff's officials declined to comment on specific claims in the lawsuit Friday, but they insisted that they were not ignoring the safety of their deputies.

“We have always been and continue to be concerned about the welfare of employees,” said Orange County sheriff's Lt. Mark Stichter.  

For SoCal crime & investigations follow me on Twitter @lacrimes

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