Sheriff proposes sending inmates to other jails

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

In the 10 days since Curry County Sheriff Matt Murray took over command of the jail, he says deputies have discovered a complete contradiction to what the former interim administrator was telling county commissioners.

Speaking Tuesday to commissioners, Murray said he found a jail understaffed, with poorly trained personnel and, in some cases, jailers were calling in sick because they were afraid to come to work.

Murray also said Interim Administrator Carlos Ortiz was supposed to be at work and wasn’t on Feb. 21, the day of the attempted escape that ended with Murray taking command.

After law enforcement was called to assist with the escape attempt by four inmates, Ortiz and several members of his command staff resigned and walked off the job.

Murray placed Lt. Keith Bessette in the position of interim administrator.

“The detention officers hadn’t been trained. Most hadn’t even had a basic level orientation,” Bessette told the commission.

Several attempts to reach Ortiz by telephone were not successful.

The revelations by the sheriff and his staff drew questions from commissioners.

“We had been told by Mr. Ortiz that all the people over there were being trained and now you’re telling us that wasn’t true?” Commissioner Caleb Chandler asked.

“If you don’t have staff and you don’t have training, how do you (intend to run the facility)?”

Murray said he plans to send some inmates to other jails outside the county to reduce the population until he can correct staffing and training issues.

Murray also said he has discontinued the ankle bracelet release program. Murray said he will use personnel who were managing the program to help run the jail.

Staffing numbers were down twice what Ortiz reported, Murray said.

The sheriff said what staff there was at the jail were overworked and untrained.

Murray also said there were almost three times the number of inmates housed out of county than what Ortiz told commissioners.

“There was a lot of stuff going on over there that we did not know,” he said.

Murray said at the Feb. 16 commission meeting, Ortiz reported there were 12 inmates housed out of county. A review of jail records showed there were 32, said Murray.

And he said, “Some (detention officers) have been there six months to a year and have not gone through any type of formal training whatsoever.”

The night of the escape attempt, there were only two detention officers working the floor of the jail —which includes six inmate pods and isolation cells — and one officer, a female lieutenant, was in the holding area at the rear of the jail.

The jail population averages 230 to 275 inmates.

“No, that’s not enough,” Murray said, explaining staff were overworked with some calling in sick and others working longer than scheduled shifts.

“They were calling in sick; they were scared to come to work.”

County Manager Lance Pyle told commissioners the finance office is conducting a line-item audit.

“I have concerns about some of the line items. It’s already over-budget,” he said.

Pyle said there is $200,000 remaining that had been set aside to do more physical improvements at the jail. He said $100,000 of that will now be used to house inmates out of county until staffing deficiencies at the facility can be corrected.

Deputies discovered one sergeant had worked a 24-hour shift, while other detention officers had logged 16 and 18-hour shifts at the time of the escape attempt.

Murray said Ortiz was scheduled to work the night of the escape attempt, but arrived after law enforcement stabilized the facility just before 1 a.m.

“Ortiz was supposed to be there, but I beat him there,” he said.

Murray said his personnel also discovered inmates were on 24-hour lockdown, sometimes with only one hour of recreation a day. He said attorney interviews were denied or made difficult, with jail officials telling lawyers they could only schedule meetings with inmates outside of business hours.

Bessette told commissioners he has lifted the lockdown, with the exception of one administrative pod, and attorney’s are again meeting with inmates.

“I’m trying to instill ‘respect in, respect out.’ We’re going to have our bumps in the road,” he said. “Because of new management they’re (inmates) going to try to push things.”

It is the second time Bessette — who assisted after the August 2008 escape of eight inmates — has been in charge of the jail.

“Right now everything is running smoothly,” Murray said, telling commissioners inmates gave a standing ovation when they learned Bessette would be in command again.

“This is the fourth administration the employees have been through,” he said.

“I want to do what’s effective and efficient with the minimum amount of changes.

Bessette will stay with the facility until a new administrator is hired and completed the transition, Murray said.

“The fact that the physical structure at the jail is not ideal does not begin to cover it,” resident Rube Render told commissioners during the public comment portion of the meeting.

“Something is bad wrong at the jail and somebody needs to look into it. There have been at least five administrators since I’ve lived here. If detention officers haven’t been trained in a year, that goes back further than one administrator.”