The only thing that is keeping inmates in the Lerdo Minimum Facility from strolling out to the open air in the middle of the night to enjoy a cigarette is the fact that smoking is against the rules.

The doors to the barracks for both men and women aren't locked, and there is no curfew for the male inmates, according to Kern County Sheriff's Department Detentions Lt. James Clark.

Once the male inmates are out in the small yards of their barracks, there is only a locked gate and an outer perimeter fence -- lined with razor wire -- that keeps them from freedom.

Lately, that hasn't been enough.

Six men made it off the grounds and out into the world within a single week in June. That's as many as have escaped and traveled more than about a mile away in the previous four years.

Eddie Bustamante, Cory Garrett, Brian Smith, Orlando Rodriguez, Rolando Lopez and Silvestre Castro all found their way out of Lerdo's minimum security facility about two months ago. While Bustamante, Garrett and Smith have all been caught, Rodriguez, Lopez and Castro are still out there.

Three people did try to escape in 2005. But one was caught on the grounds, another at the golf course next door, and the third actually walked away from an outside work group, not the jail itself. Only one made it off the grounds in both 2004 and 2003, Clark said.

That's nothing compared to several years ago, when the jail was having 10 escapes a week, officials have said. Back then the facility was a working farm -- called an honor farm -- and not even completely fenced. After the fence went up, the walk-aways went way down.

Increased escapes

So why are inmates suddenly busting out? The Sheriff's Department has offered lots of possible answers.

"If someone escapes and they get away, it gives the other people ideas," Clark said. "If we do catch them, I make a point of getting the word out to the yard."

Maybe it's the changing inmate population. Today's Lerdo inmates are typically more sophisticated criminals facing harder time than the average Lerdo inmate of 20 years ago.

"A lot of these kids have already been to state," Clark said. "If you're looking at six years in state prison, that fence might not look so challenging."

Clark also pointed to low staffing numbers.

The population of the minimum security portion of Lerdo hovers around 800 inmates on any given day. There are only 11 detention deputies watching over them, and five of those are stationed at fixed posts, Clark said.

"I have just enough officers to supervise this place if absolutely nothing goes wrong," Clark said.

Sheriff Mack Wimbish blames lack of funding, which has led to a crumbling facility that by design and age is woefully inadequate for the purpose it's being used for.

"There's no other facility that's trying to be called a jail like this (statewide), what used to be a farm and they put a chain-link fence up and now they call it a jail," Wimbish said.

The three sides of Lerdo

Built in the 1940s, Lerdo Minimum, also known as the Farm, is the department's oldest jail. Each of its wooden barracks holds about 40 inmates, for a maximum of about 1,000 male and female inmates in the entire facility.

While the basic design of the facility has remained the same, many of the barracks were damaged in a riot in the early 1980s and had to be rebuilt, according to sheriff's Sgt. Richard Wood.

Before the riot, inmates at the Farm were housed in seven adobe barracks that held 96 people each and were roughly the size of two of the current wooden barracks, Clark said.

Inside the barracks, inmates sleep on triple bunks and many contribute to the facility's decay by pulling up bathroom tiles and punching holes in the drywall behind them to hide contraband.

Each barracks contains sinks, toilets and group showers, though the inmates have a gentlemen's agreement that only one person will use the shower at a time, Clark said.

Each inmate is given a locker to keep letters and other personal items, but no pillow because laundering it would be too difficult.

The Farm stands in stark contrast to the pre-trial facility that sits right next door.

"The pre-trial facility is the first big concrete facility you pass. They don't have escapes," Clark said.

Inmates in pre-trial are kept in one- or two-man cells, and they're locked down in their cells each night at 10 p.m., Clark said.

The facility was built in 1987 and can house up to about 1,200 inmates. Inmates awaiting trial for crimes ranging from driving on a suspended license to multiple counts of murder are generally kept at pre-trial.

"They're not as concerned about their fences. It's their concrete walls that keep them in," Clark said.

About 90 inmates are held in a third Lerdo facility known as Max-Med. This facility was originally opened in 1977, but has been closed throughout its history on more than one occasion.

Max-Med recently reopened at far below its capacity of 374 inmates, and has housing options ranging from one-man cells to dorms that hold 32 inmates.

Breaking out of Lerdo

Unlike the administrators at pre-trial, Clark does have to worry about his fences. A trip around the perimeter of the minimum security facility reveals several places where the fence has been patched over the years. Some popular escape spots have patches on the patches.

One likely escape spot shows that breaking out of Lerdo minimum doesn't require a criminal mastermind. There is a point where two gates meet, but the razor wire doesn't, creating an easily scalable foot-wide area of fence.

Even the parts of the fence that are covered top to bottom with razor wire provide little deterrence for an inmate willing to endure a few scratches, Clark said.

"It's not that we don't care, and it's not that we're not trying. It's just that we're working with the limitations of what we have," Clark said.

Looking for solutions

What the department has had is several lean years, and what it needs now is about $100 million, Wimbish said. That's what he figures is needed to build a new 1,000-bed facility to replace the Farm.

Wimbish was in Sacramento earlier this month, talking to the governor about a bond issue he and sheriffs around the state would like to see on the 2008 ballot. Wimbish is hopeful that money is only a year or two away, but the new facility he wants is probably closer to a decade away.

"If someone handed me a check today, it'd be seven or eight years before a new jail was built," Clark said.

A Corrections Standards Authority team visited the Farm in July to review department policies and inspect the jail. Wimbish said the report should be available soon and may shed some light on the facility.

In the meantime, the department has worked to curb escapes. More deputies are working overtime and the perimeter-check schedules have been changed to be less predictable to prisoners. Officials are trying to keep inmates with border patrol or parole holds at another facility.

"They have beefed up security as much as they could," Wood said. "They're doing their best to keep people who might be prone to escape indoors."

By the numbers

1,020, inmate capacity of Lerdo minimum security facility.

374, inmate capacity of Lerdo Max-Med facility.

1,232, inmate capacity of Lerdo pre-trial facility.

292, inmate capacity of Central Receiving Facility (Downtown Jail).

2,500, average daily inmate population for all four facilities.