Published: 12:09 am, Sun. Apr. 3rd, 2016Updated: 12:07 am
State officials continued to decline to say how two shackled inmates slipped by transport officers Taracina Morgan and Michael Ortega during a fuel stop in Artesia last month, even after the New Mexico Corrections Department announced plans Friday to fire the two guards.
The escape went undetected for four hours until the transport van arrived at a correctional facility in Las Cruces. The NMCD says its policies require transport officers to guard prison vans at all times but declined Friday to comment directly on personnel or disciplinary actions, while announcing some initial findings from a group of outside experts in incarceration and law enforcement.
Early input from that review team suggests the escape was “more the case of non-adherence to existing, more-mature security protocols” and to a lesser extent a result of existing controls and policies, said Rose Bobchak, a spokeswoman for the NMCD. She said the review by outside experts will extend from corrections guards to top prison administrators. No report has yet been released.
Authorities re-apprehended inmates Joseph Cruz, a convicted murderer, and Lionel Clah, who is serving time for armed robbery and shooting at a police officer, on March 11 and 12 in Albuquerque after an initial manhunt that extended beyond state lines and to the U.S. border with Mexico. Several other people have also been arrested on accusations they helped Cruz and Clah in the hours and days after the escape.
Conway, of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, declined to share a copy of the termination notices against officers Morgan and Ortega. He said the notices in general list all alleged violations of state policies and procedures that justify termination. Morgan and Ortega were placed on administrative leave shortly after the prisoners’ escape.
Union representatives say broader systematic problems, including lengthy overtime shifts, appear to have played a role in the escapes, though the union has not been able to review investigative materials.
“There is a lot of systematic stuff that went wrong there that makes the union enthusiastic to mount a defense for these employees,” Conway said.
Separately, Morgan stands accused in a federal lawsuit of leaving a van full of shackled inmates unattended in a hot vehicle for up to an hour in July 2013. A corrections spokeswoman said an internal investigation cleared Morgan of the allegations, though the civil case brought by one of the inmates against the department, Morgan and another guard has not yet been resolved in court.