Jail breach costing Cape Co. thousands

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Cape Girardeau County faces a loss of almost $1,000 a day because 19 federal prisoners were removed from the county jail after two male prisoners slipped into a cell block holding female inmates.

The county uses the money for payments due on the $5.5 million outstanding debt on the 6-year-old jail. County officials said a temporary reduction in the payments won't cause any hardship but that a shortfall could develop if federal inmate numbers don't return to normal soon.

The incident, which Sheriff John Jordan has called a breach of jail security, took place Monday morning. Inadequate lighting, poor camera location and human error combined to allow the two prisoners to move from their cell block into the women's area, Jordan said.

The two men, federal detainees awaiting trial, created a diversion to distract guards with the help of other inmates, Jordan said. The two were later discovered in the women's cell block with the girlfriend of one of them who is also awaiting trial on federal charges.

In all, the two spent about four hours in the women's cell block.

The U.S. Marshals Service, which is responsible for federal prisoners, immediately removed the three from Cape Girardeau County custody along with 16 other federal inmates. As of Wednesday afternoon, only 10 federal prisoners remained in the jail, Jordan said.

Fixing the security problems to the satisfaction of the U.S. Marshals Service will be crucial to meeting required payments to retire $5.5 million in bond debt remaining on the jail. The county receives $50.82 per day for each federal prisoner and last year averaged almost 35 federal prisoners each day.

An interest payment of $99,877 is due May 1, with an additional payment of $470,000 for principal and interest due Nov. 1, county Treasurer Roger Hudson said. So far this year, the county has received $205,000 for housing the federal detainees, enough to make the May payment.

Last year the county received $642,873 for housing federal prisoners, with an average of just under 35 prisoners per day. The county sets aside up to 42 beds of the 190-bed jail for federal use.

The loss of 19 inmates costs the county $965.58 a day. "There is nothing alarming as of yet," said Auditor David Ludwig, the chief budget officer for the county. "We have a cushion to work with, and I am sure Sheriff Jordan will work to get recertified as fast as possible. We should have all our problems resolved and everything back in order in the near future, before any substantial payments for bond interest and principal are due."

If there is a shortfall in prisoner revenue, payments on the bonds would have to come from the county's general revenue fund.

The U.S. Marshals Service split the three prisoners immediately involved in the security breach, housing each among other jails used regularly for federal prisoners, U.S. Marshal Ron Henderson said. They have been moved to jails in Pemiscot, Ste. Genevieve and Perry counties. he said.

Henderson declined to identify the three prisoners involved. The female prisoner and her boyfriend are being held on drug charges, he said, while the other male prisoner is in custody on a fraud charge.

The human error involved in the security problem can be partially attributed to inexperience, Jordan said. He said he hopes a salary increase as a result of a new sales tax will help retain jailers and reduce turnover.

"I don't think there's any question that the turnover that had occurred in the prior years certainly has had an impact" on jail security, he said.

The inadequate lighting in one hallway and the problematic placement of a security camera are being addressed through equipment purchases. Some additional equipment has already been ordered, he said.

Policies and procedures are under review and improvements will be made to prevent a future incident, Jordan said.

Jordan could not say Wednesday how long it will take to make the improvements.

"We will do a complete investigation and then contact the Marshals Service to give a plan of action," he said. The U.S. Marshals Service will reinspect the facility to determine if and when to return prisoners to the jail, Jordan said.

No charges have been filed yet against the two men because they did not attempt to leave the premises, he said. It is up to federal authorities to determine how to punish them, he said.

Henderson said he didn't know what punishment the three may face.

"I guess that will depend on what the investigation shows," Henderson said.

Staff writer C.M. Schmidlkofer contributed to this report.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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