SACRAMENTO (AP) — Officials in a Northern California county have known for years that they have security problems with an antiquated jail and recently won $80 million in state funding to help build a new facility.
But before the work began, two prisoners escaped last week by cutting through the bars of a second-story window and rappelling to the ground using blankets. The men have been deemed dangerous by authorities and remain at large.
Officials say the men escaped from a dormitory that lacks security cameras and where guards stationed at one end of a hallway can’t easily see into individual cells.
In addition, they say, it’s so noisy that guards sometimes have trouble hearing what goes on inside the dorm.
Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith said there are now plans to install cameras.
“It’s kind of the old style of jail supervision,” sheriff’s Sgt. Richard Glennon said. “It takes greater manpower for supervision, it takes greater time. The design itself is outdated, in addition to the facility.”
The escape was not detected until a deputy patrolling the jail’s perimeter spotted movement in the shadows and saw bedding dangling from the window.
The new Santa Clara County facility set to open in 2019 will replace the 60-year-old structure that housed Rogelio Chavez and Laron Campbell until they escaped late Wednesday.
Sheriffs statewide have long complained about outdated lockups, particularly since the state passed a law in 2011 that keeps some inmates housed for years in facilities that were designed to hold offenders for a year or less.
“It’s time to modernize things,” Glennon said. “In California we’re having more of the people serving more sentences in county jails, we’re getting more sophisticated criminals, so I think it’s just part of the overall challenge of maintaining a correctional facility at the county level.”
Officials with the California State Sheriffs’ Association would not comment Monday about the problems.
Santa Clara County was awarded the $80 million in state money last year from a nearly $2.5 billion California fund devoted to modernizing local jails.
The new, $258 million facility is Santa Clara is expected to have space for more than 800 inmates.
The county said in its application that the new structure will replace areas that are “outmoded, overcrowded (and) difficult to supervise,” including space holding medium and high-medium security offenders in the section of the jail that was built in 1956.
State officials couldn’t say how often offenders escape from county jails, though escapes from secure facilities are relatively rare. Glennon said the last previous escape from Santa Clara County’s 60-year-old jail was in the 1980s, though an inmate was seriously injured rappelling from a fourth-floor window in a newer facility in the early 2000s, he said.
The California prison system says it has recorded just 13 successful escapes from walled prisons, none more recent than 2000. Walk-aways from unfenced areas like rehabilitation programs and inmate firefighting camps occur regularly, though the offenders are usually captured within days.
Last January, three men used smuggled tools to cut through the bars on the fifth floor of the main Orange County jail then rappelled to the ground and escaped in a get-away car.
They later forced a cab driver to take them to Northern California, but the plot unraveled when one of the men took the driver back to Southern California for fear the driver would be killed by his accomplices. The other two were soon recaptured in San Francisco.
In Santa Clara, investigators have not yet found the tools that Chavez and Campbell used to cut through the bars, and aren’t sure how they obtained the tools or whether they had help, Glennon said.
He said Chavez was reported to be in Gilroy on Sunday night, about 35 miles south of where he and Campbell escaped.
Santa Clara County officials are offering a $20,000 reward for help in catching their two men.
Chavez, 33, of San Jose and Campbell, 26, of Palo Alto could face possible life sentences if they are convicted of burglary, extortion, false imprisonment and other charges.
Chavez had been in the jail since August and Campbell since February 2015.
Two other men escaped briefly and were recaptured.