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Escapes Add to Concerns for Sheriff

November 22, 2005|Richard Winton and Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writers

The number of inmates escaping from Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department custody has doubled over the last two years, and prosecutors are alarmed that sheriff's officials have no formal policy to notify them when an inmate gets away.

Sheriff's officials say that the escapes -- 20 so far this year -- are not a crisis given that the department handles up to 20,000 inmates a day. But the department's independent monitor said the escapes, along with an additional 23 inmates released by accident and the continued killings of inmates within the jails, are evidence that the department has trouble maintaining control of its huge inmate population.

"The number of inmate-on-inmate deaths, escapes, clerical mistakes that lead to release, I think it confirms that the Sheriff's Department as a whole has lost ground in its ability to manage the jails," said Merrick Bobb, the Los Angeles attorney hired by the Board of Supervisors as an independent monitor of the Sheriff's Department.

Inmates have slipped away from sheriff's stations, jail work details and courthouse holding facilities. One recently escaped by stealing the identification wristband of an inmate scheduled for release the same day. Last year, an inmate escaped during a doctor's visit while the deputy assigned to guard him worked on one of the hospital's computers.

Four of this year's escapees remain at large, including the one who allegedly stole another inmate's wristband in a courthouse holding area and stepped into a line of inmates due for release the same day. The escapee, Kristin Bryant, had been charged with robbery and a parole violation. Deputies recaptured the other 16.

The Sheriff's Department mistakenly released 23 other inmates because of clerical errors, and one is still free, according to sheriff's records. Those released by accident this year faced charges of narcotics possession, car theft, assault with a deadly weapon, failure to register as a sex offender and threatening a witness. The missing suspect is Alejandro Gonzales, who was released while being held on charges of driving under the influence.

Last week, two inmates allegedly beat and stomped an inmate to death while they were locked unsupervised in a holding room at the downtown Men's Central Jail. The killing was the eighth homicide in the jail in the last two years.

Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said he doesn't know how many times the sheriff has failed to alert him that an inmate escaped. Cooley said he only learned of the Bryant escape from a radio news show.

"Having no written policy on telling victims and prosecutors about an escape means it is not worth the paper it is not written on," Cooley said. "Lives are at stake here. Some people are bent upon retaliation, be it against the investigating officers, the prosecutor, the victims or witnesses."

Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for Sheriff Lee Baca, said the department policy is to reports jail escapes to judges, who issue warrants for the fugitives' arrests. Even though prosecutors learn of the escapes when the warrants are issued, the Sheriff's Department plans to add prosecutors to the list of people who are informed of escapes because "it's the right thing to do," Whitmore said.

"All of us, the district attorney, the sheriff, everybody, wants one thing: to put this person safely back behind bars and as quickly and as safely and expeditiously as possible," Whitmore said.

The bench warrant for Bryant's arrest for escape was issued Friday, 10 days after he fled.

Michael Gennaco, chief of the sheriff's Office of Independent Review, said he was particularly concerned about the inmate who escaped by wearing another inmate's wristband. In 2004, an inmate used another inmate's wristband to gain access to a witness against him, whom he allegedly killed.

"It is incumbent upon the department to make sure they learn from their mistakes," Gennaco said.

In an annual report released last week, Gennaco noted that the Sheriff's Department has an enormous responsibility, detaining as many as 20,000 inmates per day, with many of them on the move to and from court. The department houses more inmates than any local jail system in the country.

Sheriff's officials in the past have said they have difficulty managing the jails because of a shortfall of deputies. Whitmore said the department currently employs 7,800 deputies, but would like to reach 10,000.

Given the high inmate count, the number of escapes is not a sign of a huge problem, Whitmore added. Most of the escapees were low-level inmates who walked away from their jobs as inmate workers.

"Given that we have 200,000 inmates annually ... that is an amazing record," Whitmore said. "Obviously one is too many. Can we do better? Yes."

Still, the numbers worried the Office of Independent Review, which suggested that the department study each escape and consider discipline and policy changes to prevent recurrences.

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