California inmates' escape likely an inside job, expert says

On average, only about one in 1,000 inmates escape. But when they do, investigators often look to inside help or complacent prison cultures. 

Nick Ut/AP
The exterior of Central Men's Jail in Santa Ana, Calif., is seen Monday. Three inmates, including a man suspected of a killing, cut through metal, crawled through plumbing tunnels, climbed a roof and rappelled down four stories to freedom using ropes made from bedsheets. The three inmates very likely had help from the inside to pull off their daring plan, but they also have the complacency of jail staff to thank, experts in jail and prison security said Monday.

As the search continued Tuesday for three violent California inmates who escaped from a maximum-security facility in Orange County, Calif., investigators will look for evidence that prison employees aided them.

"If I were whoever's investigating, there are some people who would be on a polygraph, I guarantee you," Kevin Tamez, a prison security expert from Philadelphia-based MPM Group, told the Associated Press. "They had to have had some inside help."

Early Friday morning, the three men managed to saw through a metal grate and half-inch-thick steel bars, climbing through plumbing tunnels to reach the roof, where they rappelled down five stories with a rope made of bed sheets. Mr. Tamez believes they must have had blueprints to pull off the escape, which followed a similar plan as the two-man breakout from a New York maximum-security jail last summer that led to a three-week, $23 million manhunt.

After Richard Matt and David Sweat broke out of upstate New York's Clinton Prison last year, "every prison or jail administrator in the country should have said to themselves, 'Huh, I wonder if I am vulnerable?' and should have checked their steam shafts and tunnels and every other thing that gives access to the outside," Martin Horn, a professor John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, told the Associated Press.

Lt. Jeff Hallock, a spokesman for the Orange County Sheriff's Department, said they have not yet found evidence of inside help. 

"We’re going to take a look at everybody who may have been assigned there," Lieutenant Hallock told the Associated Press. “What I can assure you is that the compromises in security have been shored up."

Lax security may have helped buy time for Jonathan Tieu, Bac Duong, and Hossein Nayeri, to escape some time between Thursday evening and a 5 a.m. Friday headcount at the Men's Central Jail in Santa Ana. Prison officials said a regular evening headcount had been delayed because of an assault on a guard. 

The three men were awaiting trial for separate violent felonies, including kidnapping, torture, murder, and assault with a deadly weapon. Federal authorities believe at least two of them are still in Southern California, and have offered $50,000 for information leading to their capture.

Prison escapes are rare in the United States: in 2013, the rate was 10.5 per 10,000 prisoners, or only slightly more than 1 in 1,000. 

"It’s very rare – this happens very infrequently, which is why it’s such a story," said Professor Horn. Analysis is difficult, he says, because "There [aren't] even enough incidents to study." 

But when inmates do pull off an escape, they often have help. Sometimes, it's intentional assistance from prison staff, but cultures of complacency can also set in, leading workers to lower their guard, particularly when decades go by without an escape attempt.

Both factors helped the New York inmates escape last summer. Clinton Correctional Facility employee Joyce Mitchell is currently serving up to seven years for bringing escape tools to Mr. Sweat and Mr. Matt. Matt was killed by a border agent after a weeks-long search. Sweat was shot and captured two days later.

"I enjoyed the attention, the feeling both of them gave me and the thought of a different life," Ms. Mitchell told police about her plans to help the men escape in a getaway car to Mexico. She helped smuggle handsaw blades, which they used to saw through piping, but backed out at the last minute, afraid for her and her family's life. She says Matt had planned to kill her husband, who was also a prison employee, and that he asked her to give him pills beforehand.

But relaxed rules throughout the prison helped the men plan, and begin sawing, for six months prior to their escape. Officers rarely conducted bed checks with proper protocol, the New York Times reported, making it easier for the pair to work undetected at night.

"A lot of times, like every other job, you get complacent and when you see a lump in a bed, you’re good to go," retired Clinton corrections officer Mark Siskavich told The Times. 

It seems likely that lax inspections helped the California inmates, as well. The three were housed in a 65-bed dormitory, which may have helped masked their activities, Horn said.

This report includes material from the Associated Press

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.