Inmates housed at Lerdo Pre-Trial Jail Facility are tampering with aging door locks at record numbers, leading to scores of criminals breaking out of their cells on a regular basis, and a large-scale riot in February, Kern County Sheriff’s officials said Monday.
More than half of the facility’s 448 two-inch door locks — used in the minimum-security portion of the jail — have been broken by inmates, according to a letter Sheriff Donny Youngblood wrote to the Kern County Board of Supervisors ahead of a $1.7 million request Tuesday to replace the locks in the aging facility.
Inmates have begun jamming spoons, cardboard, cloth or other objects in the locks and disrupting the bolt mechanism, said Kern County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Tyson Davis, who oversees the Detentions Bureau. Word of their success has been spreading throughout inmate populations nationwide.
“It’s a higher level of sophistication of criminal today than 30 years ago — and these locks have been in service for 30 years,” said Chief Deputy Tyson Davis, who oversees the Detentions Bureau. “There’s more knowledge about these locks and prisoners doing longer time share the information.”
If approved as an emergency project Tuesday, CML Security would be handed a no-bid contract worth more than $1.7 million to replace all 448 locks. It’s listed as a consent-calendar item with no discussion.
Youngblood wrote in his letter the entire process would take about seven months — but with the manufacturer only being able to produce about 10 locks per week, it could take longer than 11 months, Davis said.
Meanwhile, the Kern County Detention Officers Association has been critical of Youngblood, who is seeking re-election this year. The association took to Facebook Friday and laid blame at Youngblood’s feet for the Feb. 6 riot, saying sheriff’s administrators ignored complaints about malfunctioning door locks for months, putting their safety at risk.
“Sheriff’s office administration ignored multiple complaints from staff that the door locks were malfunctioning and failing to properly secure doors,” KCDOA officials posted on Facebook. “The inmate population knew this fact and took advantage of the situation.”
Once the riot started, detention officers controlled rioting inmates with large amounts of pepper spray, but were not supplied with protective gas masks, KCDOA Vice President Julian Trevino said. KCDOA also said the inmates at the facility were not “minimum security” risks, as the sheriff’s office has stated. Many, they say, are violent gang members with criminal histories.
Youngblood declined to respond to detention officer concerns, instead referring questions to Davis.
Although KCDOA is endorsing Youngblood’s opponent, Chief Deputy Justin Fleeman, Trevino asserted that their Facebook post was not politically motivated and their recent Facebook post was meant to only bring awareness of safety issues detention officers face daily.
Responding to KCDOA concerns, Davis acknowledged that locks have been failing for months, but that sheriff’s administrators began working with maintenance crews when the first complaint was filed Nov. 4. The process has been slowed down by logistical and bureaucratic backlogs.
“Obviously, we can’t go out and spend $1 million on something when we don’t have that budgeted,” Davis said.
Sheriff Office administrators have since secured a quote and begun the budget process to request funding.
Davis also acknowledged that detention officers do not have assigned gas masks — something for which each officer must be fitted individually. He blamed a lack of funding, but also said that detention officers don’t typically require such protective gear unless they are part of an emergency response team tasked with using pepper ball guns.
That riot, however, was so large it required 150 pepper balls to be sprayed into the air, caking the ground with chemical residue.
“They became more affected by it,” Davis said.
Detention officers who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation described Lerdo as a jail facility in disarray.
Youngblood noted in his letter 112 incidents in a four-month period between November 2017 and February 2018 involving inmates breaking free from their cells after tampering with locks. Roughly 24 of those were broken during the Feb. 6 riot. Detention officers say those are just the instances that have been documented.
“They come out whenever they want. We can’t keep them in,” one detention officer said, adding that inmates break from their cells multiple times per day, everyday, often to assault others. “We haven’t felt safe for years.”
The Sheriff Office’s solution while they await lock replacements is to move inmates who know how to break locks into cells with locks that haven’t yet been broken, and to task full-time maintenance crews to seek out faulty locks and repair them as quickly as possible, Davis said.
It cost more than $10,000 to repair about 250 locks between October 2017 and the first week of February 2018, according to Youngblood’s letter.
KCSO command staff said they would also require detention officers to conduct more security checks — something Trevino said superiors haven’t yet discussed with detention officers.
“Until we get these locks replaced, [detention officers] are going to have to be on a heightened alert, but they should always be that way when working the jails,” Davis said.
Trevino, however, said they’re understaffed, and that there’s little time for the department’s 300 detentions officers to conduct more security checks, a process that involves walking into each cell and performing an inspection.
Compounding the problems with faulty door locks, both union officials and KCSO command staff agree, is AB 109, a bill passed in 2011 that mandated individuals sentenced with “non-serious, non-violent or non-sex” offenses to serve time in county jails instead of state prison.
Despite its intention, it has shuffled more sophisticated inmates into lower-security facilities with fewer resources than those run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Trevino said.
The result? A rise in the number of inmates assaulting each other or detention officers, KCDOA Board Director Brian Andrews said.
“It’s the sheriff’s responsibility to identify that things are changing, and to change with them,” Andrews said, adding that it’s not only detention officers’ safeties put at risk, but also inmates. “They’re criminals, but they’re still human beings and we’re tasked with keeping them safe. It’s hard when you don’t have the facility, staffing and equipment to accomplish that task.”