Published: 1:00 pm, Wed. Apr. 20th, 2016Updated: 9:05 pm
State officials have withdrawn firing notices for two guards who were transporting inmates across New Mexico last month when two escaped from the back of a prisoner transport van, a representative for the prison guards union said.
However, the internal probe into the March 9 escape of Joseph Cruz and Lionel Clah — both violent felons — remains active more than a month after the pair’s getaway, with officials leaving open the possibility that state officials could still fire the guards at a later date.
“All options remain on the table — including termination, pending the outcome of the investigation,” Rose Bobchak, a Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said Tuesday.
The Santa Fe New Mexican reported Monday that the union learned of the state’s decision to rescind its initial firing notices — which are considered a first step in the administrative process for terminating an employee based on performance of work duties.
The guards, Taracina Morgan and Michael Ortega, have been on leave since the escape.
Miles Conway of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said the union’s own review so far has pointed to findings that the state’s system for transporting inmates was not up to standard before the escape.
The comment comes in contrast to Bobchak previously saying that an independent analysis of the escape suggested the officers failed to follow security protocols.
“From our perspective, the corrections department was very hasty to scapegoat these two officers and place the responsibility on them for the escape of the two inmates,” he said.
Morgan and Ortega both logged shifts longer than 10 hours in the days leading up to the escape and worked more than 18 hours the day the inmates managed to flee during a fuel stop in Artesia, a small desert town along a southern New Mexico highway.
A supervising officer, recognizing that the guards were fatigued, suggested they take naps, with one guard sleeping while the other drove, Conway said.
“That totally flies in the face of policy,” he said.
Corrections department policy requires transport officers to guard prison vans at all times. Since the escape, state officials have faced tough questions — amid a prison staffing shortage crisis — over what missteps may have allowed Cruz, a convicted murderer, and Clah, who is serving time for armed robbery and shooting at a police officer, to slip away.
The inmates said they picked their handcuffs and hitched a ride to Albuquerque as the escape went undetected for four hours.
Both were shackled when they escaped and apprehended days later in Albuquerque, with authorities arresting Cruz near the University of New Mexico, and Clah surrendering to police at an apartment complex.
Authorities have since begun assigning “chase cars” to follow the transport vans, raising questions as to why such a safety measure wasn’t in place before.
“It’s sort of a recognition that there were flaws in the system previously,” Conway said.