Prisoner’s Escape from Understaffed Private Prison Results in Staff Discipline
by Christopher Zoukis
Four guards at the Donald W. Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island were placed on administrative leave after a prisoner escaped on New Years Eve 2016. James Morales, 35, scaled the backboard of a basketball goal in the facility’s recreation yard, cut through a fence using a homemade tool and descended an exterior wall on a bed sheet, according to Warden Daniel Martin.
The prison’s board of directors quickly launched an investigation.
“We want to know: Were the procedures and policies in place on that day followed without exception?” asked board chairman Luke Gallant. “If they were, what were the holes and where are the holes that allowed this escape?”
Morales, a former Army Reservist, was charged with breaking into an Army Reserve building in 2015 and stealing military firearms. Following his escape a manhunt involving local, state and federal authorities ultimately led to his recapture on January 5, 2017. He has since been charged with “escape from custody of the attorney general,” an offense that carries a potential five-year prison term.
According to minutes from a meeting of the Central Falls Detention Facility Corporation (CFDFC) in late 2016, the facility had been operating at 20 to 25 percent below authorized correctional staffing levels. CFDFC, a private firm that operates the publicly-owned prison, pays entry-level guards $17.85 per hour. It had been advertising for more guards even as its current employees were forced to work overtime. But that may have only exacerbated the problem; according to the meeting minutes, one guard who resigned reported “excessive overtime” as his reason for leaving.
Whether or not the result of staffing issues, Morales’ escape went unnoticed for over six hours. Local police were not alerted until another 45 minutes had passed while prison employees tried to locate him.
“The community may rest assured that when this investigation is complete, and all the facts are known, anyone and everyone responsible for this escape will be held accountable,” said Gallant.
The CFDFC released its investigative findings in late March 2017, calling Morales’ escape “easily preventable, inexcusable and directly related to a series of human errors.”
A guard gave Morales a pat-down search before allowing him into the recreation yard, but missed a bed sheet that Morales had secreted inside his coat. The guard also failed to find a “self-manufactured cutting device hidden in his shoe.”
Morales was then left unsupervised in the recreation yard while he climbed a basketball goal. He cut through the fence, climbed to a rooftop and “made his way through razor wire,” pausing to hide behind rooftop equipment, the report noted, based on security video footage that recorded the escape. Tying the bed sheet to a lightning-rod cable, Morales then “jumped to the ground” and scaled another fence. Finally, he fled north along nearby train tracks.
The report estimated it took Morales a little over two hours to make his escape after entering the recreation yard just after 4:30 p.m. A headcount scheduled for 7:00 p.m. wasn’t conducted, though. So it wasn’t until 10:30 p.m. that the facility held a “bedbook count” – when prisoners stand beside their beds so a guard can identify them. According to the report, a guard marked Morales present during that count even though he had already absconded.
At 11:00 p.m., a third guard began his shift and noticed that Morales was missing. An alert went out to the shift commander, who ordered an emergency alert. At 11:38 p.m., a guard reported that a bed sheet was dangling from the building’s exterior.
Three staff members remain on paid administrative leave as a result of their actions – or inaction – on the night of the incident, the report noted. A fourth officer who was also placed on leave later resigned.
After Morales’ escape, the CFDFC ordered basketball hoops removed from recreation yards at the Wyatt Detention Center. The facility has also added metal detectors to screen prisoners as they enter the yards, and now requires all prisoners to be observed by staff during recreation periods.
Warden Martin has asked the National Institute of Corrections to conduct an independent assessment of the prison’s procedures to ensure staff have both the training and equipment they need to run it effectively.
Difficulties at the facility extend back to at least 2008, when an immigrant detainee died after being denied medical care; there was also an incident of sexual abuse by a staff member in 2009, and the following year the prison’s warden and chief financial officer were fired after an audit report revealed a myriad of problems. [See: PLN, Aug. 2010, p.30].
Sources: Providence Journal, www.patch.com, www.thesunchronicle.com, www.ripr.org, www.wpri.com