Jail Leadership Failures Likely Helped Inmates Escape, Sheriff Agrees

Jeff Antenore for Voice of OC

Sheriff Sandra Hutchens addresses county supervisors at May 9, 2017 board meeting.

Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens says she agrees with a scathing grand jury report that found major failures by her own jail managers helped three inmates escape last year.

In her formal response to the report, Hutchens agreed with all of the findings about problems with how her jail was run at the time of the escape.

Those problems included a practice of not regularly searching contractors and visitors who entered the jail, failing to regularly inspect tunnels as required, and failing to follow body count policies. The counting failure helped give the escapees, who were being held on violent criminal charges, as much as 15 hours’ head start before their absence was discovered.

The sheriff agreed with the grand jury that there was a “lack of supervision” and oversight at the Central Men’s Jail to ensure counts and searches were properly performed and documented.

Additionally, she agreed “there was an overall lack of consistent supervision regarding plumbing tunnel checks, tenting and ratlines,” and inmate counts.

And beyond that, Hutchens agreed her executives failed to take action when problems were raised.

“Inmate count issues raised by sergeants and lieutenants were not acted upon by executive jail management,” the grand jury wrote in a finding Hutchens agreed with.

And Hutchens agreed that security measures at the jail were inadequate, and proper procedures could have prevented the escape.

“Non-sworn employees, vendors, and visitors entering the facility were not searched on a regular basis, nor were their belongings; sworn deputies are never searched,” the grand jury stated in a finding Hutchens agreed with.

She agreed that if proper security measures had been in practice, “including searching all non-sworn employees and visitors, accounting for tools brought in by maintenance workers and vendors, and documenting the disposal of contraband, the tools that aided the January 2016 escape would likely not have been smuggled into the jail.”

The grand jury found that the Sheriff’s Department has subsequently “addressed the personnel issues that led to the escape,” which Hutchens also said was true.

(Click here to read Hutchens’ official response to the grand jury report.)

The January 2016 escape 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.

Then they lowered themselves to the ground with smuggled 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.

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 acknowledged her staff did not follow proper procedures to track inmates.

The commanders who were overseeing the Men’s Central Jail during the escape are either no longer with the department, or no longer overseeing jails, according to Hutchens’ spokesman, Lt. Lane Lagaret.

Assistant Sheriff Steve Kea and Commander Toni Bland oversaw the jail system during the escape, and the captain in charge of Central Men’s Jail during the escape was Capt. Christopher Wilson.

Wilson left the jail command last year and retired.

According to a lawsuit filed by the sheriff’s deputies union after the escape, he directed staff to disobey a policy requiring deputies to conduct physical body counts of inmates.

Bland was promoted after the escape to assistant sheriff for field operations and investigative services, where she served for several months before retiring.

Kea now oversees professional services, which handles the department’s hiring, training, human resources, and internal investigations.

Voice of OC attempted to reach Kea for comment about Hutchens agreeing that there were serious management failures that led to the escape while he oversaw the jails. Lagaret said Kea was out of the office Friday and that he’d follow up with Kea on Monday.

The sheriff’s response to the grand jury is dated June 16 and was made public as part of the county Board of Supervisors agenda for Tuesday.

The one grand jury finding Hutchens disagreed with was that there are still significant unanswered questions about the escape.

Those unresolved issues include “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.”

Hutchens disagreed.

“Following the escape a complete security review of the Central Men’s Jail was conducted,” she wrote in her response.

“The review identified areas of improvement and security measures were implemented,” Hutchens wrote, including securing vents “in order to eliminate access to plumbing tunnels” and the roof.

“The Central Men’s Jail is secure and in compliance with all regulatory standards,” she wrote.

Hutchens, who has been mired in a jailhouse snitch scandal that’s the focus of state and federal investigations, recently announced plans to not run for re-election next year. She plans to retire at the end of her current term in January 2019.

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