ST. GEORGE – When Joseph Anthony Graham escaped from the Purgatory Correctional Facility in Washington County last month, he did so by using the intercom system to fool corrections officers into believing that he was a guard. Because there were no cameras installed at two of the doors that Graham passed through, the officers who control the doors from the guard station could not see who was requesting access over the intercom. In the last year, there have been two escapes from the facility and county officials are looking into whether it’s time to upgrade the security system at the jail.
On August 14, Joseph Anthony Graham, a 21-year-old St. George man, walked out of a temporary holding cell at the jail after guards failed to ensure that the door to his cell was properly closed and locked. From his cell, Graham was able to make his way through the facility to a locked door with an intercom panel.
The intercom allows the jail staff to communicate with the guard station and request access through various doors throughout the facility. After pushing a button on the intercom panel, Graham gave a false name and the officer at the guard station opened the door. Graham used the same strategy to pass through at least one more door before he found himself in an unsecured area of the facility. From there, there were no more locked doors holding him back. Graham had escaped.
A number of things went wrong on the day that Graham escaped from jail, said Washington County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Jake Schultz, who manages the facility.
“Mistakes were made by our staff,” Schultz said. “There were structural deficiencies and we had processes and procedures in place to defeat those deficiencies. Some of those processes weren’t followed.”
Shultz described how weaknesses in the security system at the jail were compounded by mistakes made by corrections officers.
“He was not secured properly in his housing unit,” Schultz said. When Graham was placed in his cell, corrections officers failed to make sure that the door to his cell was properly closed and locked. The opened door should have triggered a signal at the guard station, alerting guards to the security breach, however officials later found that the signal light on the control panel had malfunctioned.
The control panels allow the guards to control all of the doors in the facility from centralized guard stations. Maintenance of the panels has been an ongoing headache for the staff at Purgatory.
“They’re not state-of-the-art,” Schultz said. The company that originally installed and maintained the panels in 1998 went out of business years ago and the maintenance crew at the jail has been left to figure out how the panels work through trial-and-error, fixing problems as they arise. The panels have been slated for replacement for some time; however, estimates for a new control system range into the hundreds of thousands of dollars and will have to be approved by the county commissioners.
Perhaps the central question surrounding the escape is why there were not any cameras installed at the doors where Graham was able to pass himself off as a guard.
Washington County Administrator Dean Cox, along with County Commissioners James Eardley and Denny Drake, have said that they were not aware that the jail had a need for more cameras. Originally, the facility didn’t have any cameras at all, Cox said, and the County Commission recognized that problem early on and addressed it years ago. The facility undergoes a “rigorous jail inspection program,” he said, and as far as he is aware, inspectors have never indicated that the facility needs more cameras.
When Schultz was put in charge of Purgatory Correctional Facility, many of the doors had no cameras at all, and at those doors, the staff relied solely on the intercom system when passing through security doors. Schultz has made purchasing additional cameras, which cost $700 – $800 apiece, a top priority, so that there is now a camera trained on at least one side of every critical doorway.
However, at the point where Graham managed to escape, a camera was installed only on the outside of the secured area, not on the inside. Essentially, the guards who were controlling the doors at the guard station could check to see who was trying to enter the jail through that door, but they were not able to see who was trying to leave.
Ideally, Shultz said that he would like to see cameras on both sides of every door in the facility. “If a visual confirmation had been made, this wouldn’t have happened,” he said. Operating under a tight budget, Shultz said that he has been applying for federal grants to raise the money for additional cameras. He said that the last time they installed new cameras, there was only enough money to purchase seven of them, and difficult choices had to be made.
“There could only be seven,” Schultz said, “and there were seven spots that were more likely security risks.”
The jail currently has 36 cameras installed throughout the facility; however the existing security system at Purgatory is set up to run 70 cameras. The Sheriff’s department had originally planned to purchase additional cameras gradually over a number of years as funds become available, rather than seeking for an increase in their operating budget. However, in light of Graham’s escape, Washington County Sheriff Cory Pulsipher doesn’t intend to wait very much longer, he said that he intends to request funds to double the number of cameras at Purgatory in the upcoming budget.
Cox said that the county has no problem funding additional security measures, so long as they are warranted. He said that the commissioners will wait until they have seen the results of an ongoing investigation into the escape before they make that determination.
“The reality,” Cox said, “is that if we need additional cameras, we’ll put additional cameras in.”
Both Chief Deputy Schultz and Sheriff Pulsipher said they do not want people to think that they are blaming the escape on budget cuts or broken equipment.
Pulsipher described Graham’s escape as a “perfect storm” of minor procedural errors that compounded to allow Graham to take advantage of a few noncritical security weaknesses.
“There were four to five small procedural mistakes made that day,” the sheriff said. “Any one of them, taken by themselves wouldn’t be a big deal, but the sequence and timing of the mistakes allowed this to happen.”
“I want us to own our part of it,” Schultz said. “I am personally responsible for every aspect of the Corrections Division,” he said, “I take full responsibility for what happened and my staff takes responsibility for their part.”
While Schultz admits that there are issues with the facility itself, he said that those issues should not have compromised security at the jail. “There are things that would make the job easier, but it can be done without them,” he said. “If we do our job correctly, then it still doesn’t happen; broken indicator or not.”
Budgets have been tight for counties and municipalities across the nation since 2008. The housing crisis and subsequent recession have not only driven down property values throughout Southern Utah, but the loss of revenue from property taxes has forced many county facilities to tighten budgets over the last five years.
However, there have now been two escapes from the county jail in the last year, both of which may have been prevented by additional cameras at the facility. Seven more cameras were purchased after an inmate hijacked a police cruiser at gunpoint last fall, but it seems that there are still critical blind spots at the facility. Graham’s escape last month has some Washington County residents wondering what it will take to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again.
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