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Inmates at jail get out of locked cells; guards don't notice

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of July 18, 2013)
Photo: Security camera footage of loose prisoners.

Two dangerous inmates in the Indian River County jail found a way to defeat the locks on their cells in the maximum security area late last month, allowing them to wander unobserved and unchallenged by guards into other areas of the facility.

Despite the severity of the charges against them – convicted felon Robert Smith, 22, awaited sentencing on attempted murder and 27-year-old Norie Davis awaiting trial on felony kidnapping and robbery charges – guards did not discover the inmates’ ability to slip out of their cells for apparently a number of days.

According to a July 1 inter-office e-mail to jail staff, Capt.  Selby Strickland – the jail commander – described how the two inmates placed items in the electronic sliding doors of their cells to prevent them from locking.

The e-mail – and subsequent paperwork and photographs obtained through a public records request – reveal that on June 28, Smith and Davis left their cells at least three times. In one case, the pair actually walked up a flight of stairs to a floor of inmate cells on the second floor of the building.

“We have found that the incident in the attached photos was not an isolated incident and these types of incidents have been happening on more than one shift over a several day period,” Strickland wrote in his e-mail to staff.

“All housing units must be checked by a deputy after closing to ensure that they have not been tampered with.  Deputy is to remain at the door while the doors are being closed. There have been instances where no security deputy was present while doors were being closed. Take an extra minute to ensure that your safety and the safety of everyone you work with is not compromised. Thank you.”

The apparent absence of guards to stop the prisoners from leaving their cells and roaming around the jail raises a number of concerns about security in light of an October 2011 jailbreak when one convicted killer and another accused killer broke out of the facility in the middle of the night. 

Leviticus Taylor was spirited away from the area by two South Florida women. He was apprehended about 17 hours later in Martin County. Rondell Reed, a career criminal and master escape artist, made it all the way to the Cincinnati, Ohio, area before he was captured five days later.

The duo, who shared a cell, managed to squirm through an air duct, break open a door, climb over one fence and dig a tunnel under a second fence to make their break for freedom.

In the 2011 jailbreak, two jailers were suspended after it was learned that three times they failed to notice during required cell bunk checks that Taylor and Reed had fashioned dummies out of books and towels to give the impression that they were still in their beds. 

Sheriff Deryl Loar said at the time of the escape that some of the lighting and cameras were malfunctioning. After an internal review of the matter, Loar vowed his office would institute better security measures. 

After receiving Strickland’s e-mail, Vero Beach 32963 put in a public records request July 8 for the photographs and any subsequent paperwork about the most recent security breach.

That records request was filled the following day, and the sheriff’s office then sent a prepared statement to area media suggesting that enhanced security measures led to the inmates being caught and subsequently placed in solitary confinement as punishment.

“As a result of the enhanced security measures taken by correctional staff including the increased monitoring of recorded video surveillance, the two inmates were observed on internal security video leaving their cell area on June 28, 2012 and entered an unauthorized but secured hallway within the cell block area and were likely engaged in attempted communication with other inmates,” the 10-sentence statement from the sheriff’s office read.  

The statement also says that steps have been taken to ensure the 22-year-old locks in the section of the jail the inmates left are reinforced.

Nowhere in the statement were the following matters addressed: 

Why correctional officers did not – over the span of several days – personally check the locks after the doors electronically closed, a practice required by jail protocol?

▪ Why jail staff – who are supposed to be stationed around the clock on the widow’s walk above the first floor cellblock – did not see the inmates leave their cells at least three times in one evening and also on other occasions around June 28?

▪ How these inmates evaded by the multiple surveillance cameras that are supposed to be monitored around the clock?

Three telephone calls from Vero Beach 32963 seeking answers to those questions to the jail commander went unanswered between Friday and press time Monday evening. Three phone calls to the department’s two public information officers last week also were not returned.  An e-mail with questions and a subsequent phone call to Loar also were not answered.