The recent inmate escape at U.S Penitentiary Atwater could have been thwarted if staff was still manning the prison towers, according to a representative of the prison guards’ union.
“I feel if those towers would have been manned, and in my official opinion, this would have been prevented,” said Joe Velazquez, vice president of the western region council of prisons locals.
Velasquez declined to comment on details of the inmate escape or why they took about four hours to notify the Merced County Sheriff’s Department, an action that was criticized by the Sheriff Vern Warnke because he said the delay was a threat to public safety.
“I can't give details on the escape because it’s still an ongoing investigation,” Velazquez said. “I can’t comment on specifics on how he did it. He defeated the security and got out.” Once the investigation is over, Velasquez said, the public information officer for USP Atwater, Deborah Cassity, could provide more details on how the inmate was able to escape.
The protocol that is set in place at the federal maximum security prison by the Bureau of Prisons, or BOP, has proven over the last 100 years to work, Velazquez said. Local law enforcement and the community were notified of the incident according to protocol, he said.
“They work the way they were designed to work,” he said. “In wake of this type of incident, we’re going to identify where we made mistakes.”
Guaymar Cabrera-Hernandez, 26, was the first person to escape the maximum security side of USP Atwater on Friday night around 8:30. He was found on Saturday night several miles north of the prison along Youd Road. Other inmates have escaped from a minimum security part of the prison.
Cabrera-Hernandez was serving a nine-year sentence for prisoner escape, unarmed carjacking, assault with intent to commit robbery, destruction of property less than $1,000 and attempted escape from the District of Columbia and Northern District of West Virginia.
Since 2011, USP Atwater has not had staff in their towers because of budget cuts, Velazquez said, and since then local union officials from USP Atwater have said “this is a bad idea.”
“When you take out the human element like eyes and ears from this critical position you come into the dangers of solely relying on technology,” Velazquez said. “That to me is the ultimate form of being irresponsible. To solely rely on that technology is irresponsible.”
Velazquez said they are going to learn a lot of lessons from this escape and will make adjustments to security and protocols. Possible flaws in the construction and placement of wired fences, cameras and radios can’t be ignored either, he said.
“The issue right now is let’s staff this thing up the way it’s supposed to be staffed,” he said. “Let’s get the towers running and stop worrying about the budget or not having the money. If we have to hire or pay overtime then have to do it. Number one mission in the bureau is to keep those inmates in.”
Warnke said the prison is dealing with the same budget cut problems that every other law enforcement agency faces, and if the Warden was given all the tools he needed for staffing he would do so.
“If he was to have all towers manned on a 24/7 basis like it was designed to do the incident would not occur,” Warnke said. “It’s going to take a live person to do these things.”
He added: “Fortunately a tragedy didn’t occur. There is a tendency to make the wrong cuts in the wrong areas and usually it goes to public safety first.”
Monica Velez: 209-385-2486