Human Error, Budget Cuts Blamed in Jailbreak : County government: Supervisors approve plan to sell Pitchess equipment to pay for beefed-up security at center.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A high-ranking Los Angeles County sheriff's official said Tuesday that last week's escape from the Pitchess jail was the result of human error, budget cuts and more dangerous criminals.

Undersheriff Jerry Harper told the County Board of Supervisors that the Sept. 20 breakout of three inmates--the second such incident at the Pitchess Detention Center in five months--was under investigation.

The jailbreak represented "a failure in our mission," Harper said. "It was not due to one major flaw, but a series of minor mistakes."

To help increase security at Pitchess, sheriff's deputies have instituted additional security checks, Harper said. The supervisors Tuesday also approved a plan that will permit the cash-strapped Sheriff's Department to sell extra farm equipment once used at the Castaic prison complex--formerly called the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho--and to use the money to beef up security.

The department hopes to raise as much as $1 million by selling Caterpillar tractors and other "expensive farm equipment," said Harper.

"We've cut back on a number of farm operations at Pitchess because of the costs . . . so the equipment is not needed," Harper said.

A week ago, three inmates--Marcelle Gonzales, 21, Antonio Carbajal, 30, and Julio Treto, 42--escaped from the sprawling facility by using, among other items, a can opener for cutting and bedsheets as a makeshift rope.

Treto has been recaptured but Gonzales and Carbajal remain at large, authorities said.

Harper blamed staffing shortages for the two-hour gap between the time of the breakout and jail officials' realization that the men were missing.

Harper also said budget cuts, which have led to the closure of three county jails in recent years, had left the county's remaining jails filled with career criminals intent on busting out.

The number of successful and attempted jailbreaks from county facilities has more than tripled since 1993, from seven to 25 in a year.

"We are not dealing with [criminals who commit] misdemeanors, but second- and third-strikers intent on not spending the rest of their lives in state prison," Harper told the supervisors. "We are trying to run what has become a state prison system. We are becoming, and soon will become, a jail with all high-security prisoners in jails built for low- and medium-security prisoners."

In the largest jailbreak in county history, 14 inmates escaped from a different section of the Pitchess complex in April. Two of the inmates, including a murderer, have not been recaptured.

On Tuesday, Harper told the board that Pitchess had added additional security checks.

Sheriff's officials also said that the department might use 10 sirens--possibly from a nuclear power plant--to alert local residents in the case of another jail break. Residents near the sprawling Castaic prison complex complained that they were not notified of the jailbreak in a timely manner.

The sirens could be in place within a month.

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