Orange County Sheriff’s deputies shortly before the capture of Bac Duong. Courtesy of OnScene TV

A report presented Tuesday to the Orange County Board of Supervisors concludes that a shortage of staff was a main reason three inmates escaped from the Central Men’s Jail in Santa Ana.

The report, which was dated Feb. 14, was part of the sheriff’s reply to the Orange County grand jury report issued in April.

The escape of Hossein Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu and Bac Duong on Jan. 22, 2016 was not known for 15 hours, according to the sheriff’s report.

“This highlighted the failure of staff to follow established policies and procedures for conducting the daily counts,” the report reads.

“The incident also underscored problematic limitations to the current staffing model, surveillance equipment, inmate tracking technology and jail policies.”

The escapees say they received help from Loc Ba Nguyen, a friend of Duong’s, who dropped off tools near the jail that the inmates “fished” for with makeshift ropes.

They used a still unknown cutting tool to saw through steel bars, Cmdr. Jon Briggs, who oversees the jails, told supervisors at their board meeting.

The report details what has been done to “harden” the jail since the escape.

The Central Men’s Jail at the time did not have a watch commander lieutenant around the clock, leaving the brunt of the duties to sergeants.

The sheriff has since added two new lieutenant positions, so there’s always someone of that rank serving as watch commander.

A shortage of sergeants patrolling where the inmates are housed on the third and fourth floors made it easier for the inmates to get out, according to the report, and prompted the sheriff to add four new sergeant positions.

The report also detailed a shortage of deputies to conduct random searches and cell checks, which has led to the addition of 16 new deputy sheriff positions with four per shift at the Central Men’s Jail.

The sheriff has also created a new policy manual deemed more “user friendly” for deputies, and various policies have been upgraded, including mandatory checks of the plumbing tunnels at least once a shift.

The sheriff has created a “red team” to challenge deputies on “flaws and gaps in our ideas, strategies, concepts and policies.” Part of the training includes a “breakout” exercise to expose flaws in the jails that need correcting.

“The class will then develop an escape plan from their respective jail and present it to the class,” according to the report. “The class will provide feedback about the plan to possibly combat it.”

The sheriff has also added about 250 metal grills in various spots, improved lighting in the exterior of the jail and plumbing areas, and added video surveillance to housing, plumbing tunnels and  “transition areas,” according to the report.

The sheriff has also instituted a new inmate tracking system with key cards and is planning to install tracking computers in the jails for men and women, but the Wi-Fi access needs to be improved because testing last summer proved it “to be unreliable,” according to the report.

A Wi-Fi-based tracking system is intended for the Theo Lacy and Musick jails and sheriff’s officials want to continue testing an iPhone handheld case/scanner as a mobile device for tracking inmates.

“Once all the hardware is in place and the network is stable, we will have the ability to track inmate movements throughout our jail facilities,” according to the report.

Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who announced his candidacy for Orange County District Attorney on Monday, grilled Briggs on the report, saying he was particularly troubled that the initial blame for the escape was placed on the aging facility rather than human error.

“That building did what it was supposed to do,” Spitzer said. “It had rebar in place that stopped people from ascending to the roof… It was human error and not the fault of the building.”

Spitzer said sheriff’s officials initially pitched it as a problem with the jail, prompting supervisors to authorize more spending to upgrade the building.

“But it was because people weren’t inspecting the tunnel,” Spitzer said of one of the main causes of the escape. “If those plumbing tunnels had been inspected, that money would have been saved.”

Briggs defended the need for the repairs, saying, “I do think it was necessary.

We also had an antiquated building going on 50 years,” Briggs added.

Spitzer also questioned Briggs about his testimony regarding the so- called snitch scandal in the evidentiary hearings in the case against Scott Dekraai, the worst mass killer in the county’s history.

Briggs testified that a shortage of staff left some deputies, who lacked necessary training, in charge of handling informants.

“You testified in front of Judge (Thomas) Goethals a couple of weeks ago that the deputies were asleep at the switch and the deputies were running the asylum,” Spitzer said.

Briggs took issue with that characterization.

“I didn’t say the inmates were running the asylum,” he said. “Supervisors were letting the deputies run the asylum in that case.

I didn’t say they were running amok. They weren’t properly supervised. They were doing things that were not within policy.”

Briggs said an informant program is necessary to ensure the safety of the jails and indicated the escape might not have happened if they had better advance information on the breakout.

Briggs acknowledged that a handful of employees have been disciplined but no one has been fired as a result of the escape.

Former Orange County sheriff’s Sgt. Dave Harrington, who is running to succeed Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who has announced she will retire at the end of her term, said the escape represented a “failure of leadership.”

Harrington told City News Service the staff shortage wasn’t the problem. The problem was deputies were not conducting cell checks properly and weren’t being held accountable as they should have been by their supervisors.

“It’s not the men and women doing the job every day — they will rise to the level of expectations,” Harrington said. “This is a failure of leadership… The issue is you’re not making sure that the deputies are doing their job.”

The problem with checking inmate movements, which allowed the inmates hours of lead time before their escape was discovered, was brought up to supervisors, but wasn’t acted on, Harrington said.

Harrington said he would order a “top to bottom” audit of the department if elected.

Tom Dominguez, the president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents deputies, said the findings of the report mirror the union’s lawsuit, which was filed in February 2016.

“The findings include staffing shortages, safety issues, a flawed inmate count policy and a lack of supervision,” Dominguez said.

“We are pleased to see that the Sheriff’s Department has addressed a number of these concerns and taken steps to rectify problems brought forth in the AOCDS lawsuit. We commend the grand jury and the Board of Supervisors for vindicating our members and recognizing the serious problems within the jail system.”

Updated July 11, 2017 at 7:47 p.m.


— City News Service

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