Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens announced Friday a series of upgrades have been made at the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana in reaction to the escape of three inmates at the beginning of the year.

Sheriff’s officials have often said the jail, built in 1968, was badly in need of repairs and modernization, but there was a fresh urgency to improving it following the Jan. 22 escape of inmates Hossein Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu and Bac Duong, who were all back behind bars eight days later.

“This escape has changed our department in many ways,” Hutchens said.

The upgrades cost the sheriff about $570,000, she said.

In the immediate aftermath of the jailbreak, officials better secured the vents and gates the inmates used a tool to cut through. For instance, steel bars were placed in front of the vents and gates in a plumbing tunnel that rotate so inmates can’t get “traction” while sawing.

“We don’t yet know exactly what kind of tool was used to cut through the gate,” Hutchens said. “But I’m comfortable that the tool used by the escapees is no longer in the jail.”

Multiple searches of the jail did not produce the tool, Hutchens said.

Administrators also went over procedures on “counting” inmates with deputies to make sure everyone was doing it consistently and according to policy. New policies were also adopted that controlled where and when tools could be used by contractors in the jails.

A K9 dog named Mercy was brought on board four months ago. The dog can sniff out drugs and cell phones.

The escapees for instance, had somehow gotten a cell phone smuggled into the jails, the sheriff said. Investigators don’t know how it got into their hands, she added.

Lt. Dave Sawyer said his investigators are confident none of the deputies or other employees on staff at the jail had cooperated with the inmates on the escape.

Investigators, however, do believe they had probable cause to arrest an English-as-a-second-language instructor at the jail for aiding the escape, but prosecutors have so far said they do not have enough evidence to take the case to trial and charge her.

Over the past six months, sheriff’s officials have installed more lighting outside the jail that would make it visible from the moon, Hutchens joked. Lighting in the plumbing tunnels has been added as well, she said.

The sheriff has installed high-definition video cameras in many areas around the jail as well as motion-sensor cameras in the plumbing tunnels that can sound an alarm when movement is detected.

The department has also gotten radio-frequency identification wristbands with a computer chip that allows deputies to track the movements of inmates.

Sheriff’s officials are eyeing the installation of more metal detectors in the jail, expanding the tracking technology usage, adding and improving cameras on the jail’s roof and putting in motion sensors while enclosing the Central Men’s Jail roof.

Assistant Sheriff Steve Kea said officials are even researching the viability of “facial recognition” technology used by the military. That would be cutting-edge technology for the law enforcement industry, he said.

In a much larger sense, the jail itself needs to be replaced eventually, Hutchens said. The sheriff has been in discussions with county officials about finding funding for the construction of a new jail, Hutchens said. Supervisor Andrew Do confirmed those discussions and said it was a worthy project to pursue.

Tom Dominguez, the president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, told City News Service he was eager to hear what improvements were made.

“I’m as curious as (reporters) are what fixes and improvements there are,” Dominguez said. “I know they’ve been working on some infrastructure, especially in the Central men’s Jail. But the department, unfortunately, has not kept us informed what’s occurring to address our concerns.”

He added, “any improvements they make since the escape is a vast improvement, specially since the facility is as old as it is and was in such disrepair. It’s an antiquated facility.”

After the jailbreak, the union sued the county, alleging that staffing cuts contributed to the escape.

“The staffing issues we brought up in our lawsuit are still unresolved and we’d like to get those addressed sooner than later,” Dominguez said. “Based on the feedback I’ve received from sheriff’s command staff, they’re going to be making moves in the right direction to get that taken care of and to improve the safety issues in the jail.”

A sticking point now, however, is what Dominguez refers to as “forced overtime” that his members are working.

“We have a forced overtime situation in the jail that is out of control,” he said.

Lt. Mark Stichter said he could not comment on that issue because of the pending litigation.

— City News Service

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