Two inmates who escaped from the Public Safety Center recently are "the poster children" for why the state's prison realignment isn't working, according to Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson.
Using bed sheets, James Leigh, 27, and Joshua Best, 23, escaped from the facility by way of a heating and air-conditioning vent last week.
They have not yet been located.
Both inmates fall under Assembly Bill 109, the state's effort to reduce its prison population by housing inmates convicted of nonviolent, nonsexual and nonserious crimes in county jails.
The law went into effect Oct. 1. Prior to its inception, Best's and Leigh's felony charges would have landed them in prison after they were sentenced.
Christianson has been highly critical of the legislation. He's said that jail-bed caps and an increasing flow of inmates to county jail has resulted in shorter incarceration time for inmates who are housed two or three security levels below their classified rating.
No room downtown
Best and Leigh who had been at the honor farm since April and June, respectively should have been housed in a maximum-security unit. Because there was no room for them at the downtown jail, and their charges were not violent in nature, they were staying in the minimum-security unit east of the main building of the public safety center on Hackett Road.
Sometime between 11 p.m. Aug. 14 and 3 a.m. Aug. 15, Leigh and Best entered the second-floor communal restroom in the 64-bed unit.
The inmates removed a metal ceiling vent, probably using some type of tool that they had made or acquired in jail. The metal screws on the vent also were likely old and fairly easy to remove, said jail operations Sgt. John Campbell.
The men climbed up on the doors of the restroom stalls, pushed ducting out of the way and squeezed through the 1-foot-square hole, into the crawl space above.
Campbell said Best and Leigh then kicked a hole through the sheetrock that led to a boiler room next door and jumped to the floor.
Next, they cut through wire mesh in front of a wall vent and kicked out two of four slats that covered it from the outside.
The inmates had knotted bed sheets into a rope, which they secured to a metal pipe and dropped two stories to the yard below.
When jail deputies went to deliver breakfast to the inmates at 3:45 a.m., they noticed Best and Leigh were not in their rooms.
The facility was locked down and deputies searched the perimeter. They found that part of the chain-link fence had been cut wide enough for a person to squeeze through, Campbell said. They then noticed the slats missing from the wall vent behind them.
Jail staff believes a third party helped the inmates by using a tool to cut the fence from the outside. The fence has a candy cane shape similar to those on many overpasses, which make it difficult to climb over.
The minimum-security unit has three pods with four-person rooms. The inmates are free to leave their cells to use the restrooms and showers or spend time in a large communal area in the center.
Three jail deputies are assigned to the unit at all times. Deputies on the night of the escape completed rounds at the appropriate times, according to a report about the incident.
Inmates get almost daily free time in the yard. They are prohibited from approaching the fence only by plastic cones and a painted red line on the ground that act as borders.
Problems with contraband
Contraband has become a huge problem in the facility because people on the outside can simply toss it over the fence, Campbell said.
The facility originally was designed to house misdemeanor offenders with good behavior, who were afforded the privilege to stay in the facility to attend rehabilitation programs at a nearby building. Those inmates had much more to lose than to gain from an escape.
But now, those offenders are nearly always diverted to alternative-to-incarceration programs to make room for higher-level offenders.
Best was booked into the jail April 18 on charges of felony auto theft, felony possession of stolen property, obstructing a peace officer and five violations of his post-release community supervision.
Post-release community supervision is the term for the type of supervision used for AB 109 eligible inmates who have been released from prison since Oct. 1. They no longer are supervised by state parole, but county probation, and a violation sends them to jail instead of back to prison.
Leigh was booked June 11 on two counts of burglary, two counts of criminal conspiracy and auto theft. He is to be sentenced to prison time in local jail for his charges under AB 109.
The Sheriff Department's Crime Reduction Team continues to search for the escaped inmates and Christianson is confident they will be located.
In the meantime, metal bars have been installed in front of the wall vents leading from the boiler room, Campbell said. Longer screws have been used in the heating and air-conditioning vents and plywood now covers the hole the inmates kicked in the sheetrock.
The chain-link fence soon will be fixed, but is now secured by a thick metal chain and a padlock.
The construction of two new facilities on the Hackett Road campus will start to address the increasing inmate population and ideally decrease the opportunity for inmate escapes.
A facility that will replace 192 beds destroyed by a fire at the honor farm in 2010 is expected to open in September 2013. In March, the county won an $80 million grant that will help fund a $132 million jail expansion project to include 384 more maximum-security beds. That project is expected to be completed in mid-2016.
In the meantime, "This situation is only going to continue and become more challenging," Christianson said.
Bee staff writer Erin Tracy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2366.