Sheriff Management Failures Aided Jail Escape, Grand Jury Finds

An image of the escape route inmates took last year in escaping Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana. (Photo by Orange County Sheriff's Department)

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. Some staff was not trained adequately and consistently and supervision of staff was insufficient,” the grand jury wrote in the report, which was released Monday.

“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 the rules for keeping track of inmates, adding security cameras, and improving lighting and fencing, the report says.

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.

(Click here to read the grand jury report.)

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.  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,” he added.

“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 Association 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 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’s 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 county 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.

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.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

  • Ed Romero

    There was too much corruption during the time that those 2 former O C Sheriff’s were in power. One scared to death of those Drug Dealing GOP Racist Lesbians that ran Orange County for years and NO ONE in the GOP dared to say anything to them, the last thing anyone in Law Enforcement wanted was a Phone call from the Nixon or Reagan House. Their leader that former Chairperson of the O C GOP, former Judge, former Chief Probation Officer and finally Director of Health for the County of Orange, she did all that with a HIGH SCHOOL EDUCATION, she used her positions of Power to Hire and Promote her numerous Drug Dealing/Abusing Racist Lesbian friends.

  • David Zenger

    “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.”

    And so somehow a systemic jailkeeping failure that nobody ever took responsibility for, that could have led to murder, and that cost us a big finder’s fee reward, is used to try to leverage a new jail that would undoubtedly cost us hundreds of millions.

    Yeah, the Central Men’s Jail is an old, cobbled together mess. But do please try to keep the inmates in. If it’s not too much trouble.

    • LFOldTimer

      All jails have to meet State and Federal standards. There are hundreds of old jails across the country that manage to keep the inmates on the right side of the walls.

      The brick and mortar is not the problem. It’s the idiots running the jail and working inside that are the problem.

      But nobody wants to acknowledge the truth.

      It’s always the fault of someone else or the infrastructure.

      These people are as irresponsible as 5 year old children.

      And I say that at the risk of being overly critical of 5 year old children.

      • David Zenger

        All complicated human endeavor will eventually breakdown when individual behavior gets lazy and sloppy. The overseers get lax overseeing their underlings who start cutting corners, etc.

        Government, like all big institutions, is full of rules and regulations. But when following those rules and procedures becomes erratic or arbitrary, and when there are no consequences for failing to adhere to them, failure is inevitable.

        Whenever you see an organization start making excuses for its failure to follow its own rules and guidelines it’s probably already too late – corrupt inertia has set in.

        To me the worst example lately was the ability one one man to steal millions from the City of Placentia. I have absolutely no doubt that there were proper accounting policies and procedures in place – standards created by professional government accountants – that had been slowly ignored until one day a single dude realized that he could get away with the crime. (My guess is that the man was only undone by his own stupid greed.)

        And in all the outrage about what a naughty, mean man the crook was, did anybody hear a single explanation for the procedural failure, or even an apology from the City Administrator or the council members? Or did the media try to investigate the systemic failure? Nope.

        • LFOldTimer

          The problem is twofold:

          (1) Government workers are held accountable for their financial blunders. Why? (see #2).

          (2) Government workers play with other people’s money and if they lose or waste it – there is always more on deck through means of more taxation or extra fees. Hence, no one in the organization is at risk of the organization going bankrupt. Everyone is safe.

          Sure, they caught to dude in Placentia who embezzled the public treasure. But were there any consequences for those whose job it was to protect the public treasure or to oversee those who had their hands in the cookie jar? Not from what I read.

          If that crime happened in a private firm countless heads would roll right off the payroll.

          Once I asked someone in government why no one is ever punished for poor outcomes based on flawed judgment.

          In return I was asked “Why are you intent on being so punitive?”. hah.

          I just shook my head and walked away.

    • verifiedsane

      Santa Ana has a brand new jail that is sitting pretty much empty just across the street? So the question that must be asked; is it really the old jail excuse, or just the grossly incompetent and corrupted buffoons running it?

  • Jack Milliken

    Shameful. The OC Sheriff is now a political suck-up position and competency is no longer a requirement

  • LFOldTimer

    This is the sort of serve and protect competence you get after giving them a 10% pay raise in their contact 3-4 years ago and more recently another 8% pay increase in the last couple years that will cost the taxpayers $62 million. These keystone cops average compensations of $230,000 or more. Change Agent Hutchens pulls down close to half a mil a year. ha. Go look at their compensations at the State Controller’s website if you don’t believe me. It appears as if the county removed OCSD’s individual compensations from the county website. Maybe that was part of the deal for AOCDS (police union) giving Do $86,000 in his recent successful campaign for re-election? Who knows? Their compensations used to be posted. Now I can’t find them.

    “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.”

    How do you sneak power tools past an OCSD guard? Divert his attention with donuts.

    The sheriff deputies must all be hard of hearing. Maybe wax in the ears. How else would they fail to hear power tools cutting though reinforced steel bars, probably 2” thick? ha. And this was an operation that took at least 2 months! Wow. Talk about vigilant professionalism on part of our heroes in green!

    And they probably still complain that they’re underpaid! lol.

    It would be cheaper just to hire Burn Security guards to monitor the jail for $12/hr. The jail couldn’t be any worse that what it is under OCSD. At least the Burns Security guards could spot power tools bulging out of a visitor’s clothing or hear power saws cutting through rebar and investigate!

    This is truly disgusting considering what we pay these clowns.

    All those who screwed up should be fired. But not in government. Get ready for another 10% pay raise during the next collective bargaining term!!!

    What a fing joke.

  • verifiedsane

    Escape from Alcatraz this is not…. 🙂 Bumbling incompetence, Yes