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Despite a high profile jail escape a few years ago, Orange County’s jails still have glaring security risks – including having just a chain link fence along the edge of a major jail – according to a grand jury that inspected the facilities.

“There is a security risk at the Theo Lacy Facility where it is separated from the vacant Orange County Animal Shelter facility by a chain link fence,” the grand jury wrote in a new report published Monday.

“The lack of a block wall at this site presents a major security risk,” it added, calling the issue a “major concern.”

It wasn’t the only security problem grand jurors found in their public report.

“Security at the Attorney Bonds Entrance area at the Central Men’s Jail is inadequate to prevent trafficking of contraband through contact visits,” it added, based on a September 2020 tour of the area.

“There were no video surveillance cameras in the area, and no separation between attorney and inmate, creating an opportunity for contraband to enter the facility.”

And a lack of training meant that the jail intake’s scanning device “is not used consistently to prevent contraband from entering the facility,” the panel wrote.

OC Sheriff’s Dept. jail intake and release center in Santa Ana on Sept. 24, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Grand jurors also found problems with the management of jail healthcare staff, who are under the county Health Care Agency.

Jail health workers “have not received enough Crisis Intervention Training,” and “have not integrated their electronic records” with mental health officials, “thus delaying and limiting their ability to share inmate information,” the grand jury found.

While grand jurors highlighted these kinds of specific problems, they said the overall condition of the jails meets required standards.

“The Grand Jury has found the jails and facilities to be acceptable and in overall compliance with state and federal standards,” the grand jury found.

Yet grand jurors also noted a disturbing lack of COVID testing for jail staff – a finding that neither the Sheriff or the Board of Supervisors will speak to. 

Grand jurors wrote in their report that by failing to require COVID testing of its jail staff, sheriff officials are creating “a high risk of infection to inmates and others.”

The grand jury’s findings typically are presented to officials ahead of time to give them a chance to fix the problems the panel identified.

But it’s unclear why the grand jury apparently found these security problems before the sheriff did, and whether the sheriff does his own audits to find and fix these kinds of security issues.

Sheriff Barnes’ spokeswoman did not answer these questions when asked by Voice of OC about it Monday – replying instead with a statement about other parts of the report that were positive about the sheriff.

“We are pleased that the Grand Jury recognized Sheriff Barnes’ proactive efforts to manage COVID-19.  Additionally the Grand Jury commended the efforts to meet the behavioral health needs of the inmates in custody,” said Carrie Braun, the sheriff’s spokeswoman.

“The construction projects recommended by the Grand Jury are consistent with the Sheriff’s plans and will be reviewed.  Some projects have been delayed due to COVID mitigation efforts and others cannot occur until funding becomes available.”

Messages for comment on the security problems were not returned by county supervisors or the county risk manager.

A county spokeswoman said the county’s risk management division doesn’t have responsibility to check for jail security problems, like the chain link fence.

County policy does not allow Health Care Agency officials to respond to grand jury reports until their official response that state law requires within 90 days of the report.

“The OC Health Care Agency is aware of the Grand Jury Report and will respond in accordance with established County Executive Office process,” Health Care Agency officials said in a statement.

One recently-retired sheriff’s sergeant who has been in the news, said in a Monday morning interview that the report confirms Barnes and his leadership team are in over their heads.

“Barnes and his command staff are completely over their head and lack the ability to fix all the issues within the department,” said Mike Scalise, who retired in 2018 after more than 15 years as a sergeant after bringing up evidence booking problems in 2017 that he says higher-ups were unwilling to address at the time.

“The citizens as well as the front line deputies deserve new outside leadership willing to address several issues plaguing OCSD,” he added, saying there should be a “new sheriff from outside of OCSD so that he can change the culture within the administration.”

Barnes’ spokeswoman didn’t have a response to Scalise’s comment.

Orange County Sheriff’s have already gone through a high-profile jail escape – yet no managers were demoted or fired.

Three OC inmates jailed on violent charges escaped in 2016, prompting a days-long manhunt and a six-figure reward payout to a homeless man who spotted one of the escaped inmates in San Francisco.

It was the biggest jail escape in the history of Orange County.

A grand jury investigation later found that serious management failures at the Sheriff’s Department aided the escape.

“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, the grand jury found in its report the following year.

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.

Then-Sheriff Sandra Hutchens later called the escape an “embarrassment” and said jail officials did not follow proper procedures to track inmates.

Hutchens herself later agreed with the grand jury’s findings that major failures by her own jail managers helped the three inmates escape.

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.

Despite agreeing that serious failures by her own jail managers enabled the escape, Hutchens did not fire or demote anyone over it, according to public testimony by the man later in charge of the jails.

During a public session with county supervisors, Commander Jon Briggs said that if jail staff had been inspecting the plumbing tunnels like they were supposed to – once every 12-hour shift – the escape probably wouldn’t have happened.

Briggs estimated there were four or five disciplinary actions, but said there were “no demotions, no terminations.”

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

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