CASTAIC — Residents met with the second-in-command of the Sheriff's Department Monday night to demand better security at the nearby Pitchess jail and a quicker system for alerting homeowners of escapes like last month's 14-inmate jailbreak, biggest in county history.
The mood of the crowd of about 75 was politely critical during the 90-minute meeting with Undersheriff Jerry Harper at Live Oak Elementary School.
Local leaders arranged the meeting following the record jailbreak April 30 at the maximum-security North facility of the Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho, the jail's formal name.
Residents said the jail has become increasingly dangerous to the community. Escapes have historically been common among minor offenders at low-security Pitchess facilities, but because of budget cuts the jail now has only higher-security dorms for those accused of serious crimes.
"When this changed to a maximum security prison did the residents have anything to say about it?" asked Diana Rotellini, 52. "I'm a new homeowner who moved in in February and I didn't like finding out about this."
"Nobody has said 'We want you to move the jail,' but we certainly want them to do something about it," said Dirk Gosda, a Castaic Union School District board member, who is part of the newly formed citizens' committee, explaining before the meeting why it was arranged.
In addition, some residents said it was hours before they learned about the early-morning escape, and they believe a system should be in place to alert residents within minutes of a jailbreak.
"We want to know exactly when there's a breakout," said Tim Trotter, 35, who said he had lived in the area for six years. "We don't want a phone call. We don't want to hear a helicopter overhead. We want an air raid siren."
He said that an hour after the escape, he was outside, loading his children into the family car, unaware that there were prisoners loose in the neighborhood.
Other residents said they would accept an expanded Neighborhood Watch, which would relay word of an escape by telephone, or a system that automatically telephoned an alert to all homes in the neighborhood, such as exists in neighborhoods near some oil refineries.
Harper told the group that "you need to have confidence in us, and that certainly has been damaged--we understand that--but we need understanding from you that you know what you are living next to."
Harper said sheriff's officials will work with residents to implement improvements in security, which could include drills and regular meetings with residents.
The breakout, which apparently was planned in advance, occurred in a 96-inmate dorm at about 3:15 a.m. when prisoners stood atop a bunk bed and removed a steel plate covering a hole in the ceiling, according to authorities. The hole had been created during an inmate fight in February. The plate was a temporary repair, but maintenance workers never returned to finish the job.
Inmates then climbed to the roof using a heating and air conditioning duct. They climbed a nearby 25-foot razor wire fence using bedding and jail uniforms for protection.
Four inmates were captured almost immediately after two sheriff's deputies making a random patrol check spotted them trying to climb the fence. Eight more were recaptured during the next two days as 120 deputies from all over the county searched the area.
The inmates who remain at large are Luis A. Galdamez, 28, sentenced last month to state prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter, and convicted carjacker Walter R. Padilla, 22. Both are from Los Angeles.
Sheriff Sherman Block told the county Board of Supervisors earlier this month that human error was partially responsible for the escape, but said a shortage of funding and overcrowding was also to blame.
On the night of the escape, 1,629 inmates were being held in a section of the jail designed for 768 and only one deputy was at a watch post outside the 96-inmate dorm, Block said.
Harper said during Monday's meeting that improvements such as a second razor wire fence around the North facility and security cameras are being installed after the county Board of Supervisors approved $200,000 for the projects.
In addition, he said, infrastructure improvements to the building are being made, such as replacing bars in a ventilation shaft the inmates were able to remove while climbing to the roof.
"The bars that we had to secure that area we believed were adequate," Harper said. "Frankly, an inspection since that time has revealed that they were not and they have been replaced with hard core steel."
Pitchess has three other jail facilities, but Harper said increased security is not as big a concern there since one houses medium-security inmates and the other two already have much of the upgraded security equipment the North facility is receiving.