Valley Perspective : A Situation in Dire Need of Correction : Public's Confidence Plummets in Wake of Escapes From State Prison at Lancaster

We have some disturbing news for folks who live in the Lancaster area of the Antelope Valley. It involves state prisons and Level IV, maximum-security inmates, the kind you least want wandering around the countryside for any length of time.

According to Times reporter Phil Sneiderman, just one of 11 state prisons that house such inmates has had a Level IV convict escape this year. Just one of those prisons--the same one, in fact--had such an escape in 1993. And the October, 1993, escape broke a 68-month streak in which no male maximum-security inmate had been able to effect a breakout from a California state prison.

The state prison with this most unenviable streak-buster status is none other than our very own, in the Lancaster area of Los Angeles County. Both inmates were later apprehended, but the context just provided shows why that is hardly reassuring.

Moreover, the argument that the 13-month-old Lancaster facility suffered from normal first-year operational problems has also been refuted. None of the state's newest prisons have shared the Lancaster facility's security problems. In fact, the last male maximum-security inmate to escape from a facility other than Lancaster broke out of one of the state's older prisons--in Tehachapi--way back in 1988.

Two minimum-security inmates also escaped from Lancaster last year and were later recaptured.

In response, Lancaster Warden Otis Thurman has been replaced, but much more is needed here.

We understand, for example, that electrified fences are being installed at various maximum-security prisons around the state. It does not require a degree in rocket science to suggest that the Antelope Valley prison ought to be the first to receive such fencing.

There has also been far too little communication between prison authorities and an increasingly fearful and frustrated public. It would make sense, for example, for prison officials to try to explain how they intend to ensure that another maximum-security inmate will not be able to scale not one, not two, but three razor-wire walls and fences without detection (Level IV escape 1) and won't be able to slip into a prison kitchen waste bin and then into a garbage truck when guards are supposed to be present at both the garbage bins and the trucks (Level IV escape 2).

Such assurances are at least mildly important, given the fact that state corrections officials hope to build another prison in the county to take the place of the one that had been proposed years ago for East Los Angeles. Lancaster was under consideration for that prison too. Care to guess how welcome it would be now?

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