Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The New Mexico Corrections Department apparently plans to fire two corrections officers who were on duty last month when a pair of violent inmates escaped from a prison transport van that had stopped to refuel in Artesia.
A top Corrections Department official said Thursday that she could not comment on the decision – formally called a contemplated action – because it’s part of a pending personnel action. But a spokesman for the union that represents corrections officers said Thursday that the union will fight the proposed firing of Taracina Morgan and Michael Ortega.
Union leaders are expected to raise questions about whether Morgan and Ortega were given adequate training and equipment. Questions about officer exhaustion, whether there were too many inmates on the trip for two guards and why no “chase” vehicle was following a van with high-risk, violent convicts could also come into play.
“We will mount a vigorous defense to try to protect these officers’ jobs,” said Miles Conway, the communications director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union in New Mexico.
Letters informing the two corrections officers that the agency intends to fire them were sent last week, according to AFSCME.
The two corrections officers were more than 14 hours into a 18½-hour shift at the time the inmates allegedly broke out of the transport van, according to the Corrections Department.
But work logs for the two officers obtained by the Journal through an Inspection of Public Records Act request show both officers reported being on the clock for 37 hours straight – from 6 a.m. on March 9, the day the inmates escaped, until 9 p.m. the next day.
That included time after the breakout, apparently spent dealing with an investigation into the escape. The officers were provided lodging by the Corrections Department for part of the time, according to the agency.
A day before the letters were sent, Rose Bobchak, the director of the Corrections Department’s probation and parole division, told the Journal the March 9 inmate escape – which sparked a frenzied manhunt – appeared to be primarily due to a lapse in security protocol by the two corrections officers, not a fundamental flaw in how prisoners are moved.
But the agency, which has grappled with high officer vacancy rates, is refusing to say why there apparently wasn’t a “chase car” – or a second vehicle intended to prevent escapes – at the time of the inmate breakout.
“Based on security and safety related to our procedures, I cannot provide you the standard practice on chase vehicles for NMCD,” Bobchak wrote in an email sent last week.
Some states require chase cars when more than one high-risk inmate is being transported outside prison walls, and AFSCME claims the Corrections Department has begun using such vehicles in the weeks since the escape occurred.
On the day in question, the transport van traveled more than 460 miles, departing from the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas in midafternoon, then making stops to pick up inmates and drop off others at state-run prisons in Santa Fe, Roswell and finally Las Cruces.
Lionel Clah, 29, and Joseph Cruz, 32, escaped from the van after it had stopped to get gas in Artesia, authorities say, although officials did not realize they were missing until two hours later.
The prisoners were in shackles and prison-issued white paper jumpsuits at the time of the escape.
After a frantic manhunt, Clah and Cruz were apprehended separately days later in Albuquerque, allegedly having hitched a ride to the state’s largest city from a man who told officers the two inmates agreed to pay him.
That man, Jesus Quintana, is one of five people who have been arrested for allegedly helping the escaped inmates, both of whom have been convicted of violent felonies – murder in Cruz’s case and assault on a police officer in Clah’s case.
Gary Klugiewicz, who does consulting and training for police and corrections officers and previously worked for a Wisconsin county sheriff’s department, said in a Journal interview that transporting inmates – whether to other prisons or hospitals – is generally the riskiest time for escape attempts. Most escapes occur toward the end of a journey, he added.
He also said corrections officers are typically instructed on how to handle breaks and other stops on out-of-prison transports.
“Usually, you never leave your prisoners alone,” he said. “That’s why you have two officers there – so one of them can always be watching.”
Klugiewicz also said studies have shown that sleep deprivation can harm law enforcement officers’ performance.
“If you work too long, does that impact one’s alertness level and ability to recognize threat? Yes, it does,” Klugiewicz said in a recent interview.
Although he spoke in general terms, he also said he did not recall during his career ever having as high a ratio of inmates to corrections officers as was in place during last month’s inmate transport in southern New Mexico.
Although five inmates were in the transport van at the time of the escape, 12 inmates had been in the van earlier in the day, according to the Corrections Department.
Corrections Secretary Gregg Marcantel has pushed for more money to increase staffing and pay levels for corrections officers but has said the 18-hour workday is no excuse for the recent inmate escape.
State legislators did include money for corrections officer pay raises as part of a $6.2 billion budget that Gov. Susana Martinez signed into law in February. But those pay raises won’t take effect until July, when the state’s new fiscal year begins.
In immediate response to the inmate escape, the agency put the state’s prisons on lockdown for two weeks and launched an internal review. It also placed the two officers on administrative leave.
In addition, Bobchak said the agency has formed a task force made up of outside experts with years of experience in law enforcement and corrections to review the incident.
She vowed that the agency will disclose all policy and personnel decisions resulting from the incident once the inquiry is complete.
Meanwhile, AFSCME leaders say they have told corrections officers, many of whom are union members, that they have the right to say “no” to certain overtime requests.
“They have a right of refusal to not accept a shift that lasts over 16 hours,” Conway said.
But he said many corrections officers end up taking such shifts, either because they want the overtime pay or they are afraid to turn down requests from their bosses.