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Valley Interview

Hampered by a Lack of Facts on Troubled Lancaster Prison

April 19, 1994|Phil Sneiderman | Times Staff Writer

As chairman of the citizens advisory committee for the new state prison in Lancaster, James T. Lott just wrapped up a nightmarish year.

Before it opened on Feb. 1, 1993, Lancaster activists fought hard to keep the $207-million prison from being built. Shortly after it opened, Warden Otis Thurman appointed Lott to the 15-member panel.

Then, during the prison's first 11 months, two minimum-security and two maximum-security inmates escaped. All four were recaptured, but community anger escalated. When Thurman refused to speak publicly about the escapes, many residents directed their questions at Lott, a 57-year-old administrator with the Keppel Union School District in Littlerock. In February, state officials removed Thurman, but Lott remains on the advisory panel, awaiting the arrival of a new warden.

Lott was interviewed by Times staff writer Phil Sneiderman.

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Question: Did you oppose construction of a new state prison in Lancaster?

Answer: I had no position at all. I remember reading about it. But I didn't have enough information to be either for it or against it. All I knew was that whatever they put in there, they better try to keep the inmates in and the community safe.

Q. What were your first impressions of Warden Thurman?

A. At the first interview, he was very concerned about making sure that the prison was a safe place to work and that the community was safe. I got the impression that he liked to give his staff a lot of autonomy, to give them the opportunity to do their job and to trust them. I think he delegated an awful lot of responsibility.

Q. Did he regret that management style after Eric Rene Johnson, a convicted murderer, escaped last October by climbing over a wall and two fences?

A. I watched him after that escape. There was some worry on his face. I got the impression that he wished he would have handled things a little differently. He was in awe as to how the escape happened. It bothered him. He made the statement, "I know we can do better than this. If anything else happens, I'm really going to consider being out of here."

I guess part of that escape was something mechanical, about the fence not clamping the guy in or something. But that wasn't a good enough excuse for us. For someone to escape, there's a human error. Someone failed.

Q. Lancaster got this prison not because the community wanted it but because the state Legislature ordered one built in north Los Angeles County . How did the warden feel about that?

A. I was under the impression that he felt that he was going to be the hero. He was going show us that we can have a prison here and that it can be safe.

Q. When the warden arrived, he was pretty visible, talking to a lot of community groups about the prison. Why didn't that continue?

A. After the escapes, he was so embarrassed and so disappointed that he just knew that people were going to go after him and blame him and not give him a chance to fix it because they didn't want it here in the first place. It kind of played right into their hands.

He had an avoidance role, which worked against him. He could have talked about what he was going to do to improve the prison and admitted that there were mistakes made. Instead, I think he got into a shell. The accessibility wasn't there. If a person called to talk to him, someone else would answer.

Q. As chairman of the advisory committee, did you have trouble getting in touch with the warden?

A. Once or twice I did. I was a little disappointed in his availability, particularly during the time of the escapes. When we would have our meetings there to discuss our concerns, he would have some representatives there.

Q. Ideally, what role did you envision for the advisory committee?

A. Our role would be to offer suggestions to the warden, to support the warden and get feedback from the community on concerns about the prison--and then work them out. Our role was to be the eyes of the community.

We were also concerned about how the prison was perceived by the community. When the first maximum-security inmate escaped, the Sheriff's Department wasn't called for hours, and the committee members were not called. The perception was that the prison was trying to hide something. I didn't want that perception. At an open meeting I said to the warden: "We better not have anything to hide out here."

Q. What was his response?

A. It was: "Oh, no, we don't have anything to hide here." Then we had another escape after that. The communication with the Sheriff's Department and the committee was better. But it should have been good all the time.

Q. When Johnson escaped, why did it take so long for the prison staff to notify sheriff's deputies and the advisory committee?

A. Some people in the community believed that if somehow the prison staff could have found this guy and gotten him back in there without letting anyone know, they would have done that. That was the perception out there.

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