YAKIMA, Wash. – A union leader says overcrowding and understaffing may have figured in the escape of nine inmates from the Yakima County Jail.
"It was an accident waiting to happen," said Wayne Johnson of Teamsters Local 760, which represents the jail's 244 guards and clerical staff.
Nine men escaped from the facility Friday night on a rope made of bedsheets — the same method used by four prisoners in 1994. Two remained at large Monday morning, and authorities said one might be in the Toppenish area.
"We've got our fingers crossed," county corrections spokesman Cpl. Ken Rink said.
It was the largest escape in the history of the downtown jail, which houses about 800 inmates, including scores being held under contract with other jurisdictions.
Five were captured immediately and two were apprehended Saturday after a tip led authorities to their hiding place in a relative's home. Still at large were Luis Albert Soto, 38, of Toppenish, facing trial Jan. 3 on a second-degree theft charge, and Gianno Alaimo, 26, of Yakima, charged with assault.
Soto is believed to have spent Saturday night in a storage unit near Heritage University and might still be in the Toppenish area, while investigators don't have a solid lead on Alaimo, Sheriff Ken Irwin said Sunday.
Both could now be armed and should be considered dangerous, Irwin said.
Investigators have been aided by numerous tips and asked for continued public vigilance " because with their eyes and ears, we're going to find these people a lot quicker," the sheriff said.
Captured Saturday were Santos Luera, 20, who faces trial Dec. 5 for second-degree murder in the shooting of his stepbrother, and Terry Moser, 25, charged with assault. Before he was returned to a cell, Luera was taken to a hospital for treatment of a broken leg from the escape.
Jail Director Steve Robertson has conceded there are problems but praised his staff's response in catching five inmates before they could leave the grounds.
The jailbreak occurred during the hectic late stages of the dinner hour Friday as guards were picking up dinner trays in the fourth-floor maximum-security housing units.
Single cells are left open during the day, and Soto's one-man cell is near the shower stall where the '94 escape began on the top tier of the fourth floor.
Rink said the shower-stall escape route was closed but added that if inmates break through the sheetrock-and-wire-mesh ceiling, they can reach a crawl space containing smoke detectors and electrical and heating gear with the roof directly overhead.
County officials likely will seek advice on how to make that area more secure, he said.
The jail's inmate population should be limited to 700 but sometimes exceeds 900, leading to increased tensions, inmate assaults and suicide attempts, Johnson asserted Saturday.
The main jail and its adjacent annex were designed for 574 inmates, but more were added in the 1990s by placing second-level bunks on what had been single beds. More than 60 correctional officers typically cover each of the three eight-hour shifts.
Beds were added in an effort to generate revenue by renting jail space to other agencies, especially after a test run in 1995 at the request of King County while the Regional Justice Center was being built in Kent.
The program has made millions of dollars for the county, but the jail has not been upgraded with additional toilets, showers and kitchen facilities to accommodate the larger population, Johnson said.
"They need to put money back into it like you would maintenance for your vehicle," he said.