July 11, 2014

Inmate transport program faces scrutiny

A Merced County program that allowed employees with the Public Defender’s Office to transport their jailed clients to drug-treatment programs out of the area was suspended Friday, two days after an inmate escaped from custody, allegedly with the help of an employee from that office.

A Merced County program that allowed employees in the Public Defender’s Office to transport their jailed clients to drug-treatment programs out of the area was suspended Friday, two days after an inmate escaped from custody, allegedly with the help of an employee from the office.

That employee, 29-year-old Steven K. Haywood, was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of being an accessory to a crime.

Merced County sheriff’s investigators said Haywood intentionally allowed John Fuentes, 31, to escape while driving him back from a treatment-program interview in San Francisco. Deputies also said Haywood deliberately lied to investigators to delay the inmate’s capture.

The incident marked the second time an inmate had escaped from Haywood’s custody during his short time at the Public Defender’s Office, the Sheriff’s Department confirmed Friday.

Another inmate, 26-year-old Michael Mirabal, escaped May 19 and was on the run for several hours before he was rearrested, deputies said.

Both the inmates who escaped while in Haywood’s custody got out of vehicles at North Buhach Road and Ashby Road in Atwater, Capt. Greg Sullivan confirmed.

“Both (escapes) did happen in the same exact location and the same circumstances,” Sullivan said. Mirabal “was (also) coming back from a treatment interview.”

Haywood was not suspected of intentionally allowing Mirabal to escape at the time, and was not arrested. Sullivan confirmed that deputies are “taking another look” at the May 19 incident, but declined to elaborate on details of investigation.

Deputies said Haywood admitted deliberately helping Fuentes escape, but they have not commented on any potential motives, including whether Haywood may have been threatened or bribed.

County officials have confirmed that Haywood was fired Thursday.

Efforts to reach Haywood for comment have been unsuccessful.

Both the inmates who escaped from Haywood had lengthy criminal records that included felony convictions.

Fuentes had a 2004 conviction for gang activities, according to Merced Superior Court records.

Mirabal has been in and out of prison since 2006 on a variety of parole and probation violations. His convictions include auto theft, grand theft and evading police. He was arrested again Feb. 7 on suspicion of domestic violence, false imprisonment and child abuse. That case is pending, court records show.

Public Defender program suspended, reviewed

Vincent Andrade, interim public defender in Merced County, formally suspended the transportation program Friday.

“We’re going to review what we do and the policies that are in place,” Andrade told the Sun-Star. He said he hopes to have a “revised policy” by Sept. 2 to “allow sufficient time” to come up with a new program or method of transportation.

Andrade also defended the transportation program, saying his office drove clients to treatment interviews “at least once a week for more than 10 years” without a significant number of issues.

It was unclear exactly how long the program has existed in Merced County. Andrade said it was established by one of his predecessors “well over a decade ago.”

“There have been hundreds, literally hundreds, of successful trips to programs and hundreds of clients have been able to get job skills and address their addiction issues as a result,” Andrade said.

It’s not uncommon, authorities said, for inmates to receive rides to treatment program interviews outside of the county. Judges must approve the interview beforehand, and inmates with private attorneys have been released to family members who take them to and from the interviews. Typically, the inmates who receive such passes don’t have a history of violence, authorities said.

The Sheriff’s Department on Friday was still trying to determine the exact number of times inmates have escaped while being driven to and from treatment interviews.

Given the recent escapes from his program, however, Andrade and county law enforcement officials hope to find ways to improve its security.

Sullivan, the sheriff’s captain, said he thinks county inmates should be taken to and from the jail only by trained law enforcement personnel. “It should be either the Sheriff’s Department or Probation (Department), I believe,” Sullivan said Friday.

He said other options may include establishing video conferences so inmates can interview for treatment programs without leaving custody.

“Those are good programs and, unfortunately, (transportation) should be done differently,” Sullivan said. “It should be done in secure vehicles with proper equipment and training. It’s what we (deputies) do every day.”

District Attorney Larry D. Morse II said he also believes the program should be reviewed and likely changed in the future.

“Whenever there’s an incident like this, everybody takes a step back and evaluates the system,” Morse said. “Everyone wants to minimize the likelihood of these types of problems, but obviously, nobody can eliminate all possible risk.”

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