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Prison doors probed after officer attacked By Andy Furillo Bee Staff Writer (Published March 1, 2000)
Officials are inspecting the electronic locks on thousands of prison cells throughout the state after an inmate at California State Prison-Sacramento popped open his door last week and attacked a captain, authorities said.
The captain, who was not seriously hurt, was punched Feb. 21 by a prisoner who jimmied his door open while the officer was supervising a cell search in an adjacent unit at the prison, also known as New Folsom.
A prisoner getting out of a cell "is one of the scariest things that can happen to you," said David Tristan, the Department of Corrections deputy director in charge of institutions. "That's why we took it so seriously."
Inspectors dispatched to New Folsom found "probably several hundred" cells with malfunctioning locking devices, Tristan said. The problem at New Folsom prompted Corrections officials to examine all the cell doors in the 21 institutions built in the state since the mid-1980s prison construction boom. The inspections have turned up defective components in "one to five" cells per institution, according to Tristan.
"We're checking all the cell doors, especially in those areas where we have our more dangerous inmates, and the mentally ill and those kinds of inmates," Tristan said. "We're talking about doors that are electronically powered to open or shut. We found a significant problem with them at CSP-Sac."
All of the state's highest-security prisons are among those undergoing the inspections, including Pelican Bay State Prison, which was the site of a massive riot last week. Pelican Bay's 3,400 prisoners have since been on total lockdown, confined to their cells virtually all of the time.
"Some of the doors, the locks there, are 15 years old," Department of Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said, of all the state's relatively newer prisons "Rather than taking any chances, we are replacing them. We've communicated with the prisons that have similarly designed doors. We're checking them all."
No problems have been reported at the state's older prisons, like Folsom and San Quentin, where officers still lock down the inmate population with keys behind old-fashioned steel bars.
Asked if the older locks are working better than the modern versions, Thornton said, "You could probably say that."
Thornton said that Department of Corrections workers have fastened temporary locking devices on the problem doors.
"They've chained them shut," said Lance Corcoran, vice president of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
Thornton said there is no public safety problem.
"People should not be alarmed," she said. "The doors routinely undergo maintenance anyway. Prisons have redundant security areas. Even if you could get out of the cells, you're not going to get out of the housing unit, or out of the yard, or past the electrified fence."
To protect staff, the Department of Corrections has doubled the number of officers staffing control booths and on the tier floors in an undetermined number of housing units on "certain watches" at New Folsom and Mule Creek.
Tristan said the overtime cost on the first day of the problem at New Folsom was $20,000. He said the overtime has since totaled somewhere around $50,000 at the prison. He estimated that materials needed to fix the locks will cost about $10,000, with labor costs for maintenance employees working overtime expected to substantially exceed that figure.
At New Folsom, CCPOA chapter president Ondre Henry said prison managers are working to fix the locks "as quickly and as expeditiously as possible."
Officials said it was the attack last week on a captain, who was not identified, at New Folsom by an inmate who was able to pop his electronically locking door that prompted the statewide search for the defective devices.
"He was supervising a cell extraction of an inmate" as part of a search, Tristan said. "Another inmate opened his door and assaulted the captain. Fortunately, the captain was able to defend himself and staff responded and restrained the inmate and the captain was not seriously injured."
Although the attack on the captain was the only incident of violence, Henry said "there have been other occasions" where New Folsom prisoners were able to jimmy their doors open.
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), March 04, 2000