No Escaping the Flaws at New Prison : Lancaster Facility Needs Quick Security Fix if It Hopes to Hold Community Support

It was billed as a state-of-the-art detention center. Escape-proof, some said, with no blind spots. Well, that kind of overconfidence has been part of the problem at the new state prison in the Antelope Valley.

The Lancaster facility has already had three escapes in nine months of operation. Fortunately, the last seems to have prompted a timely review and some useful recommendations. Nearby residents have a right to expect their prompt implementation.

Minimum-security barracks inmates Juan Isidro Maestas, serving a burglary sentence, and Jesse Adame, serving time for robbery, escaped July 2 and were on the run for about five days before they were recaptured. Their barracks were located outside fences that surround the facility's medium- and maximum-security cellblocks.

Eric Rene Johnson, who escaped Oct. 5, was captured after just five hours, but Johnson was a high-security prisoner and a convicted murderer. He somehow managed to avoid detection while climbing over an 8-foot block wall and two 12-foot chain link fences, all covered with razor wire.

The problems: staff negligence and procedural inadequacies, say state officials. Adds James Lott, chairman of the prison's advisory committee: "There were several people not attending to their business."

An hour passed before Johnson's escape was discovered. Nearly two hours passed before local sheriff's deputies were notified.

Prison officials say that they have stepped up daily inmate counts and security inspections, and that they are segregating high-security-risk inmates to keep a closer eye on them. Those officials also contend that additional measures will be in place within 90 days.

If they aren't in place, the next thing to turn up missing might just be the Antelope Valley's welcome mat for another state prison.

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