Jail issues linger

File photo Following the escape, officials rushed to correct deficiencies at the jail. Workers can be seen doing repairs in this photo of one of the pods at the jail.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Two huge mistakes just weeks before the one-year anniversary of a major escape that focused national attention on Clovis are once again beaming public scrutiny straight inside the walls of Curry County’s problem plagued jail.

• Aug. 8, John “ToyToy” Garcia, 33, in jail awaiting a state parole hearing is released by mistake. He turns himself in three days later.

• Aug. 9, accused burglar Bobby Owen, 25, escapes officers transporting him in handcuffs to Plains Regional Medical Center. An internal investigation reveals Owen uses a handcuff key left in a hospital bathroom by friends and is allowed to use the bathrooms unsupervised. Owen is captured seven hours later after a countywide manhunt.

The most recent mistakes cost two correctional officers their jobs.

But the errors are a public relations disaster for new Jail Administrator Lois Bean and County Manager Lance Pyle, who say they’ve spent countless hours and millions of county dollars to try and fix problems at the jail.

“Having erroneous releases and escapes is unacceptable,” Pyle said in a recent written statement. “The supervisors and employees must take pride in his/her position(s) and follow the county and detention center policies and procedures that are in place; if not, they will be held accountable.”

Bean took over in December. Her job: Fix a broken system.

She acknowledges problems at the jail may have been worse than she or anyone else imagined.

And, Bean adds, disclosing for the first time examples of the kind of problems she found, it has been a struggle.

“Management,” Bean said, “was relaxed, the (detention officers) were relaxed and the inmates were in control, they were running the jail.

“When you’re trying to take control of a jail and you’re trying to a stand against the inmates and the staff…it’s difficult.”

Staffing remains a key issue, Bean said.

“They would just hire (officers)off the street and put them to work…(without training),” Bean said.

“Last year at this time they were understaffed,” Bean said. “We’re (still) not fully staffed, but we’ve got three times as many as they had before the escape.”

Bean compares her task to starting from scratch, building a brand new jail. She says she is about halfway to meeting the goals she set for the jail and herself when she took the job.

“Everything takes time,” Bean said. “Anytime you start a new jail or prison, it takes about two years before that jail starts to level out, before that jail starts to do good. It’s like building and starting a whole new jail. Everything has to be instilled.”

Bean said she is still rewriting outdated policies in place when she took control. She is also writing new policies to prevent escapes and mistakes.

She has started periodic training programs for staff. She says she’s also recruiting new staff, fixing structural and security inadequacies and bringing staff, inmates and administration together into a well organized system.

Bean says the battles have been many. She says there was and remains a lot of ground to cover, but believes some token success is beginning to surface.

About 40 percent of the county’s budget is now dedicated to the facility.

Pyle, who became manager in 2007, said the facility’s budget has nearly quadrupled — from $1.5 million to $4.1 million — in nine years. He says the jail didn’t make any capital improvements beyond routine maintenance until after the escape.

“The condition of this facility before the escape was not created overnight and we have a long way yet to go,” Pyle said.

“Compared to a year ago the detention center facility is more secure today and the county will continue to make improvements and upgrades.”

A new camera system and metal detectors have been added, he said. Repairs have been made to the building, staff training has been given priority and programs to keep inmates busy and rehabilitate them have been increased, Pyle said.

County Commissioner Caleb Chandler wants to see a stronger sense of urgency.

A member of the jail committee, Chandler says there is much to be done and it needs to be done immediately.

“A jail housing 260 inmates, who are there because they can’t follow society’s laws and rules, is very difficult to manage,” Chandler said. “County government is mandated by state law to manage the jail. The current jail administrator accepted that responsibility in December of 2008. She walked into a difficult situation after the escape and I think everyone has been very patient up to this point.

“I have made it very clear to the jail administrator and the county manager, both in commission meetings and other conversations, that the problems that continue to plague the jail must be solved immediately. The safety of our citizens and jail staff, as well as inmates in the jail must be at the top of county government priorities.”

Bean said she is working diligently to increase accountability and professionalism.

“I have a lot of good staff, I have a lot of staff with good potential that want to succeed,” she said.

“The goal is to make the facility and the community a more safe environment for people… At this point, eight months down the road, it has been a tremendous change. We’ve come a long way, we’re on the road to getting there. It’s going to take the support of everybody, it’s going to take everybody working — the community, the staff and the inmates.”

To at least some outsiders the situation inside seems to be improved. Bob Norris and Garvin Chandler — no relation to the commissioner — conduct bible studies and baptisms at the jail. They say changes are obvious and positive.

“It’s just a better place… the people are nicer (and) I’ve just been real pleased with what’s going on,” Chandler said.

He and the group has been visiting inmates weekly for more than two years. He’s seen the jail before and after Bean’s arrival and said her changes make he and group feel safer at the facility.

“I think everybody’s trying to do a better job within themselves, that’s how I feel. We’re working together, coordination is going on; it seems like it’s been better the last six months to a year,” he said.

Norris said he feels better about the work they are doing in the jail. Friday morning, five men were baptized in a portable baptismal tank in the jail’s sallyport, he said.

“I feel like they’ve beefed up the security quite a bit… our security has been increased a little bit,” Norris said.

“Lois Bean is about as helpful as any warden we’ve had,” Norris said. “She’s really helped our work quite a bit… I think that they’re trying to turn that jail around. It’s been a real sore spot on the commission and everybody else for a couple of years (and) I think they’re doing a better job.”