Serious management failures at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department helped three inmates charged with violent crimes escape from jail last year, according to a new report by the county grand jury.
In a scathing assessment, grand jurors said key factors in the January 2016 escape included management not adequately training and supervising deputies at the jail, which allowed the guards to repeatedly violate security policies and procedures.
“Some [Central Men’s Jail] personnel did not correctly follow procedures regarding counts of inmates, and did not conduct inspections of plumbing tunnels and other infrastructure as required,” the grand jury wrote in the report, which was released Monday. “Some staff was not trained adequately and consistently and supervision of staff was insufficient.”
“Additionally, relevant sections of the OCSD’s policy and procedures manual were confusing, allowing some deputies to ignore key security responsibilities. These personnel issues, combined with long-identified shortcomings in the [jail’s] video security equipment, created an environment conducive to escape.”
After the escape, sheriff’s officials took steps to correct many of the problems, including clarifying and enforcing the rules for keeping track of inmates, adding security cameras, and improving lighting and fencing, the report says.
Unanswered questions remain
But, the panel wrote, “questions persist as to how and what type of tools were smuggled in and why none of the inmates in the same cell as the escapees claimed to have any knowledge of the escape, despite the likely months-long planning and execution process.”
Grand jurors also questioned whether the Sheriff’s Department’s ongoing jailhouse informants’ scandal contributed to the jailbreak by making other inmates less likely to tell deputies about the planning of the escape before it happened.
And this silence continued after the escape, preventing officials from learning what escape tools were used and how they were brought in, the panel wrote. The grand jury didn’t explain its reasoning for how the informants’ scandal, in which deputies are accused of systemically violating detainees’ constitutional rights, could have affected the inmates’ cooperation.
A spokesman for Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said her department has admitted to failures related to the escape and corrected them, and that the jail is now secure.
The report “highlights the work done over the course of the last year to improve security at the Central Men’s Jail,” Lt. Lane Lagaret wrote in a statement.
“When the escape occurred in January 2016, the department acknowledged failures and need for improvement,” he added. “Those improvements have been made and the jail is secure. Orange County residents can feel confident that we have made the necessary changes to meet our current security needs and that we have a proactive plan in place for additional upgrades.
“The facility complies with all regulatory standards but the age of the facility, however, requires constant attention and maintenance. Extending the life of the facility will require significant investment in capital improvement projects, and we are committed to working with the Board of Supervisors to achieve our long-term plans for the jail.”
The grand jury, meanwhile, says it continues to have doubts about the jail’s security.
“The Grand Jury is concerned that there are key elements that remain unanswered about the escape, such as the silence of the 38 inmates who shared housing with the escapees, and what tools were used and how they were brought in, leaving doubts as to whether the current upgrades will prevent future escapes,” the report states.
The grand jury’s findings echo claims last year by the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, which alleged mismanagement and negligence by higher-ups potentially contributed to the jailbreak.
In a February 2016 lawsuit, the union claimed the jail’s commander at the time of the escape, Capt. Chris Wilson, directed staff to disobey a policy requiring deputies to conduct “an actual physical body count of inmates.”
“The grand jury did point out that some of our members, as well as some in the management ranks, brought it to upper management’s attention that certain policies weren’t being followed as it relates to the counts, and those concerns were ignored and no action was taken,” said Tom Dominguez, a sheriff’s investigator who serves as president of the deputies’ union.
It’s important, he added, that higher-ups clarify the confusion about the procedures and “hold everyone from the top down accountable to ensure that they’re conducting their jobs in compliance with policies and procedures.”
Wilson left the jail command last year, was assigned to the coroner’s division and is no longer with the department, according to Dominguez and the sheriff’s spokesman.
Security improvements followed jailbreak
Security at the county’s jails has significantly improved since the jailbreak, Dominguez said.
“This was certainly a wake up call for jail management. Unfortunately it took a jail escape for these improvements in security to occur,” he said.
The union wants to see “more expertise” about security in the jails’ upper management, he added, saying “it’s still a revolving door” of leadership at the Central Men’s Jail with three different captains in charge since the escape.
The escape, which took place on Jan. 22, 2016, was the most significant in Orange County history, according to the grand jury.
After sawing through a metal grate and bars, which is believed to have taken months to plan and execute, three inmates crawled through a plumbing tunnel and ventilation shaft to reach the jail’s roof.
They then lowered themselves to the ground with a smuggled line of rope, where a getaway vehicle took them away.
The escaped inmates had been jailed on violent crime charges of kidnapping and torture, attempted murder, and murder. And a failure by jail staff to follow body count policies gave the escapees up to 15 hours’ head start before their absence was discovered.
The escapees spent more than a week on the run before being captured. During that time, they held a taxi driver captive at gunpoint, allegedly arguing over whether to kill him before one of the escapees helped the driver safely escape.
Hutchens later called the escape an “embarrassment” and said jail officials did not follow proper procedures to track inmates.
Among the grand jury’s findings was that security measures at the jail were “inadequate,” with employees, contractors and visitors “not searched on a regular basis” and sworn deputies “never searched.” If proper procedures were in place, it wrote, “the tools that aided in the January 2016 escape would likely not have been smuggled into the jail.”
The grand jury also found there was “a lack of consistent supervision at the [jail] to ensure that counts, searches and logs required by the policy-and-procedures manual were completed and conducted according to procedure.”
In that case, the department “has adequately addressed the personnel issues that led to the escape,” grand jurors wrote.
And the grand jury found that despite its warnings years ago to upgrade and expand the jail’s security cameras system, the Board of Supervisors didn’t fund the multi-year, $10.9-million project until the 2014-15 fiscal year.
Based on the project’s five-year timeline, it will be at least two more years before all the cameras are online. “We have upgraded the cameras in the affected areas and will continue to upgrade them throughout our jail system,” said Lagaret, the sheriff’s spokesman.
In their report Monday, the grand jury identified two unanswered questions that could be key to preventing future escapes.
What type of tools were used by escapees?
The first is what the actual tools were that the inmates used to saw their way to the outside, and who provided them. “The Grand Jury could not obtain an explanation as to how the inmates obtained the tools that were essential to the escape, or even what type of tools were used, and no definitive tool has been located,” the panel wrote.
The second issue “that has never been fully explained is the fact that not one of the 38 inmates sharing the housing area with the three escapees informed deputies during the several month period that the preparations for the escape were likely underway,” the panel wrote.
“In an environment where it is not uncommon for inmates to inform on one another for a violation of jail policy in return for a reward as simple as a cigarette, it is extremely difficult to understand that not one inmate came forward with information on the on-going escape preparations during the period prior to the actual escape. Additionally, when interviewed by [sheriff’s] personnel after the escape, not a single inmate claimed to have any knowledge that the three inmates were planning the escape, sawing the bunk and the grates, etc.”
The panel wondered whether that silence is related to the ongoing jailhouse informants’ scandal, in which an appeals court found the Sheriff’s Department systemically violated detainees’ constitutional rights.
“The Grand Jury was unable to determine if the larger ‘snitch controversy’ that was, and still is, a major issue in Orange County had a bearing on the inmates’ silence,” the report states.
The report recommends a series of actions by the Sheriff’s Department, including extra security screening for visitors, contractors and staff, such as “full body scans, additional metal detectors, bag searches and additional drug detection dogs.”
And it calls on the department to “develop and implement guidelines to hold all staff accountable for conducting their jobs in compliance with policy and procedures manual.”
State law requires Hutchens to respond in writing to many of the grand jury’s findings and recommendations within 60 days. The Board of Supervisors must respond within 90 days to a finding and recommendation related to funding of security upgrades, including cameras and security screening of visitors and staff.
This story was reported by Voice of OC, a nonprofit investigative newsroom, as part of a publishing agreement with TimesOC. Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.