Plenty of blame can go around for latest escape

At least Curry County had help losing a jail inmate this time. Ruben Hernandez, a convicted felon with a long criminal history, ran away from Clovis Municipal Court on Tuesday morning. He was captured about 14 hours later.

Municipal Judge Jan Garrett is to be applauded for announcing the blame was all hers. (After all, we haven’t heard a lot of that from many elected public officials, at any level, in forever.)

In reality, though, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Something is wrong when county jail prisoners are sent anywhere, including traffic court, without each law enforcement party involved banding together to ensure adequate security goes with each prisoner handed over.

To put this escape into a larger perspective, in the past 11 years at least 16 Curry County inmates have escaped custody. Half of them broke free together in 2008 by poking a hole in the jail roof. That incident brought embarrassing national attention to our criminal security woes.

Those 16 escapees do not include any prisoners accidentally released by disorganized or daydreaming jailers. Nor does it include the inmates — who included Hernandez in 2005 —  who did not return to jail after a judge allowed them to take a furlough.

It is not the fault of jail officials, of course, when a prisoner decides he or she likes freedom better than incarceration.

What is obvious to us and many others is that prisoners with a record of wanting to leave should be watched more closely, i.e. Hernandez.

Details of his newest escape still are not clear. But Clovis Police Chief Steve Sanders said it appears Hernandez had planned it far enough in advance to enlist help from others.

Part of that plan seems to have included a ruse that he could not walk and needed a wheelchair, in which he sat when the municipal court bailiff picked him up at the jail.

The bailiff bought the “old gunshot wound” story and no one bothered to shackle or cuff Hernandez, the usual procedure when county inmates are transported to municipal court.

It’s important to note that municipal court cases do not routinely involve inmates who are or might be security risks. Most of the cases are misdemeanors. Hernandez was there because he was accused of driving without a license.

Curry County officials say they are not responsible for county inmates once they are headed to municipal court.

We disagree.

The county is responsible for its inmates whether they are in their jail cells, or receiving medical treatment at Plains Regional Medical Center, or are standing before the judge in traffic court.

Logic suggests these day trips offer more opportunity for an escape than when prisoners are confined to their jail pods. And prisoners know it because, since 2004, three inmates have escaped county custody during hospital visits.

No one person is responsible for the latest inmate escape. A number of public officials must share the blame, including Garrett, municipal court jailer Felix Loera, interim jail administrator Tori Sandoval and her staff, and Sheriff Matt Murray, who last month requested and received a $3,000 monthly stipend for consulting fees related to jail security.

County commissioners and County Manager Lance Pyle don’t escape blame either. They are responsible for staff that once again failed to keep a county prisoner in custody.

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