WASHINGTON DC June 24 2017 — In a maximum security federal prison in California, convicted carjacker Guaymar Cabrera Hernandez made a run for it. A key to his brazen escape last month: Five guard towers ringing the perimeter of the compound were not staffed.
Turns out, they have been empty for nearly six years.
Instead, prison officials at the U.S. Penitentiary Atwater have been relying on three layers of fencing, including an electrified barrier known as a "lethal fence" — which the 26-year-old Guatemalan inmate easily defeated in a run to freedom that passed directly beneath two of the empty towers, according to two officials who are not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
So alarmed by the breach, the warden staged a video re-enactment of the escape, featuring a correctional officer scaling the same section of the fence. The video demonstrated how to avoid tripping a potentially lethal jolt of electricity, according to one of the officials who has viewed the tape.
The unusual video, recorded shortly after Hernandez was recaptured on May 13, has since been sent to the Bureau of Prisons headquarters in Washington. Yet the towers at Atwater remain unstaffed, and the only visible security change at the complex was the addition of one vehicle to the existing single-car patrol to roam the prison's outside perimeter.
The breach has now drawn the scrutiny of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, which is exploring the increased reliance on fencing technology at the nation's most secure prison facilities — in lieu of tower officers who once represented the last line of defense against escape and other disturbances.
"The committee is looking into the situation at the Atwater prison as well as other prisons around the country,'' panel spokeswoman Brittni Palke told USA TODAY, adding that the lawmakers are coordinating their review with the Justice Department's inspector general.
The Bureau of Prisons did not dispute the account of Hernandez's escape or the dearth of tower officers, saying that the agency "continues to monitor its physical security structures in order to ensure adequate security procedures are in place.''
"For security reasons, we cannot comment on our use of towers and fencing,'' spokeswoman Tovia Knight said.
Yet the breakdown at one of the federal system’s most secure facilities is casting new attention on persistent security concerns and staffing shortages, first disclosed by USA TODAY, that for years have plagued the country’s largest prison system.
In recent years, nurses and other medical staffers have been thrust into guard duty and other security-related shifts to fill the chronic personnel gaps, despite their lack of experience patrolling the corridors and recreation yards inside the overcrowded system.
Despite the problems, the BOP paid more than $2 million in bonuses to top administrators and wardens during the past three years while the agency was confronting security-related staffing shortages, overcrowding, sub-par inmate medical care and a lurid sexual harassment lawsuit that engulfed its largest institution, according to government records and court documents.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is now reviewing the bonus payments. But the Atwater breach is prompting the Senate Homeland Security Committee to launch a "bureau-wide'' investigation into compromised fencing and other security concerns across the prison system.
"Our office is in the process of forming an investigation into bureau-wide issues and would like to use the issues with the fencing at Atwater as a starting point,'' according to committee correspondence obtained by USA TODAY.
A committee investigator, in an email dated June 13, refers to the panel's interest in obtaining the Atwater video and describes the "structural flaws of the fences'' as of "great concern to us.''
DeTekion Security Systems, a New York company which has conducted maintenance on fencing at Atwater as recently as March, did not respond to a request for comment.
he Atwater case is just one high-profile example of how the bureau's emphasis on fencing technology has increasingly supplanted dependence on correctional officers, as a concession to both technology and budget constraints.
Perimeter towers at the bureau's largest penitentiary in Coleman, Fla., have also been unstaffed for years, said Joe Rojas, president of the local prison workers union. The empty towers have long unnerved officers who fear that they represent a glaring security weakness.
"I think everybody would rather have eyes, ears and boots on the ground rather than rely on a fence,'' said Rojas. Members of his union are charged with securing more than 2,600 inmates assigned to maximum security units.
Hernandez, serving a 115-month sentence for carjacking and assault with intent to commit robbery, was transferred to Atwater following his 2016 attempted escape from a medium security federal prison in West Virginia.
At Atwater, federal authorities discovered Hernandez missing about 8:30 p.m., May 12, during checks after the evening meal. According to one official briefed on the incident, the inmate with a slight build climbed a rain spout to the roof of a building, where he went undetected before making his way through the fencing.
Gouged by concertina wire, Hernandez's blood marked the path that he took, up and eventually over the barriers just below the towers. Hernandez managed to scale the electrified fence by using insulators attached to the fence as stair-steps, avoiding the charged wires, the official said.
Hernandez also may have slipped past a motion sensor just outside the fence-line. It is not immediately clear whether security officials were alerted to a tripped sensor at the time.
Beyond the federal prison system, the Hernandez escape raised concerns in the surrounding community of Atwater, where Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke said local authorities were not alerted to the breach until hours after the inmate was discovered missing.
Daryl Allen, a spokesman for the sheriff, said that delay prompted a meeting between Warnke and federal prison authorities shortly after Hernandez was recaptured. Allen said the meeting "ironed out" communications problems between the prison and local law enforcement, at least in terms of the delayed notification.
Yet the meeting did not apparently address the staffing of the guard towers. "He (the sheriff) has heard they may have some issues,'' Allen said. "Those are rumors that he has heard.''