Two former Faulkner County Detention Center employees say that the August 17 escape of three prisoners was a result of an institutional and systematic failure to monitor the prison.
The two made the claim at a grievance committee hearing on Wednesday.
Former detention officer Seth Ferguson, having called Capt. Lloyd Vincent as a witness, said that he had documents in the form of a photocopied "passdown" notebook showing that for eight months during his employment, a maximum of 15 "walkthroughs" were conducted for any 24-hour period.
State law requires at least one jail walkthrough per hour; FCSO prison policy accordingly requires a walkthrough at least every hour and preferably every 30 minutes.
But this wasn’t being done, according to Ferguson, on his or any other shift at the Faulkner County Detention Center’s Unit II facility. This loose compliance with the walkthrough policy meant that any shift could have allowed the jailbreak, he said, telling the grievance committee that it was "a role of the dice" that it happened on his shift’s watch.
A walkthrough requires at least three of the four members present on a 12-hour shift; one stands watch at a "podium" monitoring both the prisoner areas and a number of closed-circuit TV monitors while two actually walk through the prisoner areas and recreation yard to check for contraband, damage or suspicious activity.
FCSO Major John Randall said that the state requirement was more than met when the various instances that require detention officers to enter the prisoner areas are factored in. These include such tasks as delivering medicine and clothing to the prisoners, he said.
Ferguson, along with fellow shift members Christina Jordan and shift supervisor Corp. John Ross, were dismissed in September for failing to adequately supervise the prisoners after three escaped through a gap they’d worked to create between a recreation yard’s chain-link fence and a wall. The fourth member of the shift was not fired because she had only started working at the jail a few days prior to the escape.
Jordan objected to her termination because she was in the women’s side of the jail at the time of the escape, and also said that hourly or bi-hourly walkthroughs were practically impossible for a four-person shift "unless you just drop everything else."
Testimony at the hearing revealed that around the time of the escape Ferguson was standing at the door of the recreation yard to tell a few of the dozen or so prisoners there that he had clean jumpsuits ready for them and failed to notice a prisoner impermissibly standing behind a "red line" in front of the hole in the fence, apparently trying to block the officer’s view. Also, the detention officers on shift only found out that prisoners were missing after a Conway Police Department report that men in prison uniforms were seen trying to get in a car.
Vincent said that it was a stroke of fortune that the other "eight or nine" prisoners in the recreation yard declined the opportunity to try and escape.
Complicating matters for the detention officers at the time of the escape was a power outage that temporarily knocked out the jail’s closed-circuit TV monitors. FCSO Major John Randall said during a break in the hearing that regardless of the poor timing of the power outage, the detention officers failed to follow the correct course of action — calling the prisoners back from the recreation yard or monitoring them there in person. Randall added that he didn’t think that the prisoners knew that the cameras were off while they were working at the hole in the fence.
Fired county employees are given the right by law to make their cases before a grievance committee at a hearing usually conducted by the county attorney. The grievance committee then gives an opinion as to whether the adverse employment is constitutionally unlawful (as in cases of firing on the basis of race, color, sex, religion or national origin) and whether they agree with the decision to fire the employee. Another purpose of such a hearing is to give employees who claim that their reputation in the community has been stigmatized a chance to publicly clear their name. Also by law, fired employees may continue to earn their paychecks pending the outcome of the hearing.
The committee unanimously found that no constitutional violations had occurred in the firings, and agreed with both terminations.
Sheriff Andy Shock wasn’t at the hearing, but said later that he stood by his decision to fire the three shift members.
"I hold my employees to a high standard," Shock said. "In this case, it is clear that if these employees had done their jobs properly, there would not have been the escape of three inmates and no need for these hearings."
Shock also acknowledged that the jail is understaffed, with detention officers being called upon to fill in for sick or vacationing or otherwise unavailable officers on a semi-permanent basis.
"We’re trying to get pay increases . . . and if we could just keep the positions we have and keep them filled, that’d go a long way in itself," Shock said. "And this is not an easy job. [Detention officers] are required to be in a centralized location supervising people who have shown that they don’t follow the rules of society and they don’t want to follow the rules of jail either."
(Staff writer Joe Lamb can be reached at 505-1277. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)