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Jailbreak Casts Spotlight on Budget Woes

May 07, 1995|TIMOTHY WILLIAMS and JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The dramatic escape last week of 14 inmates from the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho, which triggered a massive and ongoing manhunt for two remaining escapees, has drawn attention to a host of underlying political and economic problems affecting the county's jail system.

It's a bad situation not expected to improve, Los Angeles County officials say, noting a projected budget deficit of as much as $1 billion next fiscal year, even as jails are bursting at the seams with no end of new inmates in sight.

"I don't think the Sheriff's Department can sustain any more cuts," said Lori Howard, chief deputy to Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who represents the area around the Pitchess jail. "But the problem is that the cuts have to come from somewhere. . . . It's the $1-billion question."

The weekend jailbreak at the sprawling maximum-security complex in Castaic was due in part to human error, Sheriff Sherman Block acknowledged last week. But he also emphasized during a meeting of the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that overcrowding was an underlying factor and that the escape underscored the way budget cuts have affected county jails.

Later, he and other department officials elaborated:

* Although the county's eight jails were built to hold a total of 12,000 inmates, they are currently housing more than 19,000 men and women.

* Budget cuts, particularly in the Probation Department, have left many inmates in legal limbo as they await pre-sentencing reports and other paperwork required to move through the system. As many as 70% of county jail system inmates, or an estimated 13,300, are awaiting trial or sentencing.

* Although early-release programs have been expanded recently, enabling 4,200 inmates instead of 1,500 to serve their sentences in supervised work, the county jail system continues to hold about 1,000 more prisoners than it is mandated to house.

* Finally, officials say, because of the "three strikes" legislation that sends thrice-convicted felons to prison for life, inmates in the county jail system are more violent and increasingly desperate enough to take greater risks--like attempting to break out of jail.

So jammed are the jails that the Sheriff's Department now accepts only inmates with bails that exceed $25,000.

"The kind of inmate has changed," Block said. "Now you have people facing significant prison terms if they are convicted. They require a higher level of security."

But while the guard-to-inmate ratio is 1 to 12 in the county, statewide the ratio is 1 to 5, Block said. The circumstances surrounding the escape from Pitchess in the early-morning hours of April 30, he continued, are a testament to the county system's problems.

The opportunity for the breakout actually came in February, during one of the jail's frequent racial brawls, when a jail-made weapon created a hole several inches wide in the drywall ceiling of a dormitory.

After the disturbance was quelled by deputies, a Sheriff's Department maintenance crew repaired the hole by covering it with a steel plate screwed into the ceiling. It was only a temporary measure, and maintenance workers intended to return to cover the plate with another plasterboard.

For 2 1/2 months, the steel plate at the back of the room was a temptation for the dormitory's 96 inmates. Everyone else had apparently forgotten about it because, as Block acknowledged, the repair workers never returned to finish their task.

"These guys, because they have to stay in the dormitory all day, they have nothing but time to think of ways to escape," said Mark Squier, chief of the custody division for the northern county, including the Pitchess facilities.

Sheriff's officials said they believe that for three successive nights--between the last head count at 10 p.m. and the first check at 6 a.m.--prisoners communicated silently, using hand signals to send information about the assigned watch deputy and whether or not he was paying attention to them.

The prisoners, apparently using crude tools they fashioned themselves, were able to loosen the screws that held the steel plate in place and to widen the hole, officials said. They concealed their work by simply replacing the plate.

While the Sheriff's Department has admitted that human error was a factor in the jailbreak, the North Facility, where the escaped convicts were housed, was also badly crowded.

When the jail was built in 1987, the dormitory was intended to contain a single level of beds. Over the years, however, as it became necessary to house more inmates, the jail replaced the regular beds with bunks.

Those bunks provided inmates with a virtual ladder, enabling them to simply stand on a top bunk and climb out of the hole undetected.

On the night of the escape, the Sheriff's Department noted, 1,629 inmates were in a section of Pitchess designed for 768 people, the section where the escape occurred. And in the dormitory where the escape actually took place, one sheriff's deputy was responsible for keeping an eye on 96 supposedly sleeping inmates.

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