Monday, July 24, 2017
[Orange County] Deputy errors, understaffing were major factors in Santa Ana jailbreak, Sheriff Hutchens says
Blog note: this article references the sheriff’s response to an April 2017 grand jury report on the subject.
Orange County sheriff officials told county leaders Tuesday, July 11, that jail mismanagement, understaffing and deputies’ longstanding disregard for department policies were major factors in last year’s brazen escape of three inmates — an official acknowledgment that it was staff missteps, rather than antiquated jail infrastructure, that played the central role in the breakout.
In response to the January 2016 escape from Central Men’s Jail, the sheriff’s department has increased staffing by $4.5 million annually, hiring nearly 22 new deputies and officers to man the facility, according to a confidential sheriff’s document obtained by the Register, which also was discussed more generally at the county Board of Supervisors’ meeting Tuesday.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ admission of the role of personnel shortcomings in the jail breakout came in a recently published response to an April report from the Orange County Grand Jury, which found that jail staff ignored security rules, took shortcuts in counting inmates, didn’t search jail vendors, and failed to follow policies requiring deputies to regularly inspect tunnels inside jail walls. The panel also found that jail management failed to fix those problems when sergeants and lieutenants raised some concerns before the escape.
Those shortcomings helped give the escapees – Hossein Nayeri, Bac Tien Duong and Jonathan Tieu – a 15-hour head start before jail staff realized they were missing, according to the report. The men led law enforcement on an eight-day, statewide manhunt before their recapture.
Hutchens agreed with nearly all the report’s findings. Her concession is the furthest the sheriff has gone in assigning blame to her staff for the jailbreak.
The three men, who were facing charges ranging from attempted murder and kidnapping to mutilation, escaped by cutting through metal bars, crawling through tunnels, climbing onto the jail roof and rappelling down four stories. Following the men’s recapture, the sheriff’s department announced that it had worked to “harden” the Central Jail, paying $570,000 to install new bars, lights, motion detectors and other physical improvements.
But the Feb. 13 confidential sheriff’s report reveals that the department’s response to the jailbreak was largely a personnel issue.
According to the report, deputies who were supposed to conduct random searches and body counts were often redirected to do other jobs in the jails, leaving the area understaffed. A single sergeant charged with supervising two floors of the jail’s housing unit remained stationed on the bottom level, leaving the roof and top floor – where the escapees were housed – unmonitored. And the jail had no watch commander during the “midnight shift,” leaving lower-ranked sergeants to supervise the facility, the report stated.
To plug those deficiencies, the sheriff’s department has created posts for two new lieutenants, four sergeants and some of the 16 deputies recommended by the internal report.
The sheriff’s department also has made numerous other changes in jail operations, including conducting regular roof inspections, accounting for all sheets and clothing, checking plumbing tunnels each shift, requiring additional training of jail staff, tracking what tools enter and exit the facility, adding a canine team, auditing guard stations, holding mock “breakout” classes and beginning implementation of a system that tracks inmates with radio frequencies.
On Tuesday, Supervisor Todd Spitzer grilled sheriff’s officials, asking why the department hadn’t admitted earlier that personnel missteps were chiefly to blame for the escape. He also alleged that Hutchens attempted to hide those mistakes from the public by using unfilled positions to make new hires – a move that did not require board approval.
“Sheriff Hutchens blamed the building for the failure when in reality it was a failure of management, and she controlled all of it within her existing budget so she didn’t have to have this conversation on the record,” said Spitzer, who is running for district attorney. “The building didn’t fail. She failed.”
Spitzer asked Sheriff’s Commander Jon Briggs, who assumed control of custody operation following the jailbreak, whether the escape should have been discovered if deputies had been doing their jobs properly.
“It should have been (discovered),” Briggs responded.
Briggs told Spitzer that the department still doesn’t know what tools the inmates used to cut through the bars, though he said the marks resembled those made by reciprocating saws, which were left behind on two occasions near inmate housing areas prior to the escape.
Briggs also told the board that “four or five” people had been disciplined over the breakout, but no one had been fired or demoted.
Supervisor Shawn Nelson said he disagreed with Spitzer’s assertion that Hutchens had hidden the personnel problems from the board
“It wasn’t hidden from me,” Nelson said. “The fact that you could even have tools for cutting told me that someone didn’t do their job.”
But Nelson said the board was never told prior to the escape that there may have been concerns about understaffing in the jails.
“Not even by the union,” Nelson said.
The union that represents Orange County’s sheriff’s deputies sued Hutchens and the department in February 2016, alleging that staff reductions contributed to the escape. That lawsuit is pending.
Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Sheriff’s Deputies, said Tuesday that the grand jury report validated many of the allegations in its lawsuit. But he also commended the department for addressing some of the union’s concerns.
July 11, 2017
The Orange County Register
By Jordan Graham