Sheriff 'frustrated' detention officers didn't stop inmates from escaping

Series of changes made to interior, exterior of jail

Photo does not have a caption

SAN ANTONIO – One week after state inspectors cited the Bexar County Jail for deficiencies, the sheriff says he's made the mandatory corrections as well as a few other changes in an attempt to prevent future escape attempts.

The sheriff will meet with state officials Thursday to discuss the changes he has implemented. The KSAT 12's Defenders obtained a written response sent to the state detailing those changes.

"Thankfully the fixes that the state asked us to make were easy enough fixes to make. We made them that day within 24 to 48 hours," Sheriff Javier Salazar said Tuesday.

The Bexar County Sheriff's Office received a notice of administrative noncompliance from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards April 4. A special inspection the week before found two violations of state rules: an exercise area had more inmates than space allowed and there were not enough searches for contraband.

The inspection was a result of the March 2 escape of Jacob Brownson, Eric Trevino and Luis Arroyo. The capital murder suspects are accused of cutting a hole in the mesh of the exercise area, then throwing fishing line to the ground to collect some tools, then climbed down bed sheets to make their escape. The inmates were caught within two hours.

TCJS said searches for contraband -- both planned and unplanned -- were "not conducted between April and August of 2017 in Unit CC, the housing location that three inmates would eventually escape from."

The report also said searches done in August turned up evidence outside the jail "which led officials to believe inmates were throwing handmade lines to the ground in order to obtain items or objects outside the facility." A search in January 2018 "occurred as a direct result of obtaining information regarding an escape plan. The next contraband search occurred in March 2018, after the escape occurred," the report said.

Salazar said he was frustrated to learn detention officers knew about the escape plan -- something he said he was aware of before the state report, but after the inmates escaped.

"We've taken some steps to make sure that doesn't happen again. Flow of information all the way to the top of this organization, namely me, is vital and I want to know it all. I don't care if the bad news has to come at 2 in the morning, that's why I sleep with my cellphone no more than 6 inches from my head at any given time. I want to know the bad news," Salazar said.

In an effort to make sure the inspections take place, the department's Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) is tasked with performing scheduled searches in the units. A newly created unit, the Contraband Abatement Team (CAT) will conduct irregular searches.

"We are making a concerted effort to patrol our perimeter more effectively. My CAT team, it is their absolute business to scour the facility - top to bottom at all times and notice (that) maybe there's a brick missing where yesterday there wasn't one, or things are just different," Salazar said. "That did tell me we're on the right track."

He said it was CAT who discovered a hole in the exterior of the building last Thursday. Inside the jail, officials said two inmates, Martin Herrera and Ramon Medellin Jr., used a brick in a sock to break through the wall in an attempt to escape. CAT also discovered a fallen brick outside the jail that was not part of an escape attempt.

BCSO is also working with county officials to see what improvements can be made to the existing structure.

The inspection also said the exercise area is 291 square feet and should not have more than one inmate in the area at a time. BCSO said, "The exercise area in question will only serve one inmate at a time and the deputies in that unit have been retrained on this fact."

The area also has a sign reminding officers of the occupancy rule.

While not part of the state's report, the Sheriff's Office also assigned four deputies and two maintenance workers to look at the exterior enclosures on the recreation areas to determine what, if any, repairs or improvements need to be made.

The street area in front of the Adult Detention Center is no longer open to traffic. Patrol deputies in marked vehicles and foot patrols are also assigned to the perimeter of the building. Salazar said he has also joined those patrols.

Salazar said the jail is currently short by about 50 officers. That requires officers to work mandatory overtime to keep the jail properly staffed. A current cadet class and people in the middle of the hiring process are expected to fill those positions, Salazar said. He's also exploring other staffing options.

"There are positions within the jail that are currently being (held) by detention officers where I could just as easily have a civilian doing some of these jobs," Salazar said.

At least one detention officer was placed on administrative leave as a result of the March escape. Last week, Assistant Jail Administrator Deputy Chief Laura Balditt retired from the department. She was replaced by Deputy Chief Ruben Vela.

Salazar said other detention officers could face discipline or termination once an internal review has been completed.

About the Author: