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Work Begins on Beefing Up Security Around Pitchess Facility : Prison: Crews are adding a second coil of razor wire to the fence and installing metal bars to block areas with access to the roof. Motion detectors are being discussed.

June 20, 1995|MARK SABBATINI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

CASTAIC — In the wake of the biggest jailbreak in county history, workers began shoring up security at Peter J. Pitchess Honor Rancho on Monday, adding a second coil of razor wire on the fence and metal bars to areas that could provide access to the roof.

Additional security enhancements will be installed soon, say jail officials, who have been meeting with nearby residents to assure them that precautions are being taken to curb future escape attempts.

Fourteen prisoners broke out of the maximum-security facility April 30 by crawling through a ventilation duct in the ceiling and scaling the fence nearby. Two inmates, including one convicted of manslaughter, remain at large.

Lt. Errol Van Horne said human error was partially responsible for the escape, but the level of security was also less than officials have wanted.

The North facility, which is now used as the maximum-security section of the Pitchess jail, was designated medium-security when it opened in 1987, Van Horne said. The transition from medium to maximum was made in recent years, he said, with few additional security enhancements.

Requests for new equipment and fences were mostly turned down, Van Horne said, due to lack of funding.

"It's been called a maximum-security facility, but that's only because of the type of inmate we put into it, not because of the level of security," Van Horne said.

After the escape, $200,000 was approved by the county Board of Supervisors for immediate improvements, Van Horne said.

In addition, a deputy on foot patrols the outside of the building 24 hours a day. Three deputies, in contrast to one before the escape, patrol by car the 2,800-acre Pitchess facility, Van Horne said.

"What we are doing is reinforcing the area they got through," he said.

Even with all the planned improvements in security, this part of Pitchess with its rooms housing as many as 96 inmates each, will still be "a low maximum-security type of environment," Van Horne said. A high-level maximum-security facility would have single-bed cells and no windows wider than 5 1/4 inches.

Nonetheless, the improvements seemed to satisfy four members of a local citizens advisory committee, formed after the escape, who visited the jail Monday.

"I have to say it would stop me," said Dick Millar, president of the Castaic Chamber of Commerce. "On an interim basis, I think it will work. At least they're showing effort."

But residents interviewed at a nearby neighborhood said much more needs to be done.

"They need closed-circuit cameras and infrared over that whole area," said Mike Galvin, 42, whose wife discovered one of the escaped inmates hiding under her car in their driveway the day after the jailbreak. "It's not a real maximum-security jail."

Van Horne said additional improvements are being discussed, including security cameras and a second perimeter fence with motion detectors.

"There will be an alarm that will respond to shaking, cutting or trying to throw something on it," he said.

The high-tech fence, which would cost about $300,000, has been "approved in spirit," Van Horne said. He said Pitchess officials are determining exactly how much construction would cost before submitting a proposal to the Board of Supervisors.

"If it doesn't get approved, they're going to be hearing from a lot of us," he said.

Lori Howard, an aide to Supervisor Mike Antonovich, said county budget officials believe the Sheriff's Department will have enough of a surplus at the end of the 1994-95 fiscal year to build the fence. She said such a proposal would be supported by Antonovich.

One of the biggest demands from residents near the jail is for an air-raid siren that would alert them of an escape, Van Horne said. He said Pitchess officials are trying to find a source of surplus sirens.

Galvin said extra security and improved notification will be needed before life returns to normal in his neighborhood, where the escape is still a daily topic of discussion.

"Every time anything squeaks, creeks or the dog jumps up in the middle of the night, my kid is like 'What's that?' " he said.

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