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Cell breakouts, attacks 'easy' in outdated Men's Central Jail

A revealing look inside LA's Men's Central Jail shows how some inmates can escape from their cells whenever they want.
March 3, 2014 12:00:00 AM PST
Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles is one of the largest and most dangerous jails in the nation. On any given day, up to 5,000 inmates are locked up at the antiquated facility, which was built in 1963 and is operated by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

Eyewitness News was given rare inside access to Men's Central Jail. It's a massive, sprawling facility where violence can erupt at any moment.

"For my staff, every time they walk one of these rows, they're in danger," said Men's Central Jail Captain Dan Dyer.

One inmate, whom we agreed not to identify, is housed in a high-security area known as "2904." He told Eyewitness News he's accused of murder and selling drugs and guns. The inmate was locked up behind a cell door constructed from heavy steel mesh and iron bars. Despite the tight security, the inmate told us he could break out of his cell at any time.

"Yeah, like most doors when you unlock them, some doors are racked and if you know how to do it right, you can push your gate in and it will open right up, you know? And whether you catch an active or non-active gang member, your enemies, you could attack them while they're walking to the showers and handcuffed with deputies," said the inmate.

Escapes from the jail facility itself are rare, but inmates breaking out of their cells is another matter.

"There's probably not a housing location in my building that they can't get out of," said Capt. Dyer. "We've watched them. We've had them show us how they do it. Simply the design of some of these cells makes it very easy. These guys that have been in and out of here over the years. It's an art to it and they know how to do it."

The inmate in 2904 says he learned how to break out of his cell from his "homies" and years of cycling into and out of the criminal justice system.

"When you're facing life already, you have nothing to lose," he said.

Dyer said a small number of inmates may want to attack a deputy or custody assistant, but most are looking to assault a fellow inmate.

"What's commonly called a 'green-lighter,'" said Dyer. "Somebody who's a drop-out from a gang on the street or somebody who has committed an act inside the jails in violation of gang codes. Those are the individuals they're after."

For security reasons, Dyer declined to discuss specifics of how inmates break out of their cells, but did say some simply hold onto the cell doors when deputies open or close a group of them, a process known as "racking the gates."

"They place milk cartons in certain strategic places to increase a little bit of a gap. If they can get that gap with the door on our panel, makes it appear that it's closed. But if they get that extra half-inch gap, they're able to jerry-rig it open," said Dyer.

The danger is clear to see in LASD security footage taken inside the jail. On September 9, 2011, inmate Jose Renteria broke out of his cell in the 2904 jail module.

Sheriff's Department officials said Renteria "managed to defeat both locking mechanisms, enabling him to open his cell door at will." Startling video shows Renteria lunging into the shower area where an LASD custody assistant is leading another inmate out of the shower. Renteria repeatedly stabs the other inmate, who is still in handcuffs.

"In this particular incident, we had an individual who for whatever reason wanted to break out of his cell and attack another inmate. Not only attack, but to kill," said Dyer.

The custody assistant, Andrew Zamora, risked his own life to save the other inmate, identified as Terence Warner.

Renteria was tried and convicted of first-degree attempted murder in 2013 for the stabbing of Warner. Renteria has also been convicted of first-degree murder for his role in the murder of LASD Deputy Juan Abel Escalante in August 2008. Renteria was sentenced to life without parole last year for Escalante's murder.

Custody Assistant Zamora has been commended for his bravery and has been nominated for the L.A. County Sheriff Department's Lifesaving Award.

Dyer says the issue that allowed Renteria to break out of that cell has since been fixed. "It's a cat and mouse game. We're trying to make the upgrades as we learn their little tricks of the trade," Dyer said.

With nothing to lose and nothing but time on their hands, some inmates become masters at escaping from their locked handcuffs.

Eyewitness News obtained an internal LASD video in which two inmate demonstrate how they can use jail-made "handcuff keys" to unlock their handcuffs. One inmate explained to deputies how to fashion the keys from items like box staples, paper clips and bobby pins.

"You'd break a piece of paper clip off, straighten that, you'd want to file it down so it's nice and flat. The reason you want it flat is because when you put it into a hole, you want to have the movement necessary to lift the latch here," says the inmate on the video. "We can actually take the chains all the way off and use them as a weapon."

On the video, a deputy asks the inmate for some examples of what he's seen other inmates do after removing their handcuffs. The inmate replies, "Stab people, slice people, beat people up."

It's not just handcuffs turned into weapons that concern jail officials. LASD Lieutenant Sergio Murillo showed Eyewitness News a collection of jail-made weapons confiscated from inmates at Men's Central Jail. There were dozens of "shanks", weapons made from scrap metal, wood and other material found around the jail and then sharpened into knives.

"The deputies have to worry about this every day that they walk into these modules and housing locations. It's a very dangerous place," Lt. Murillo told Eyewitness News.

Inmates can get creative when it comes to making their own weapons. Murillo showed us several long spears made from solidified newspaper and torn up bed sheets.

"These can be dangerous because inmates can take these poles, they can attach a sharpened edge at the tip here. The inmate can take the weapon and stab somebody walking down the row," said Murillo.

Murillo also showed us a rope made of bed sheets confiscated after a failed escape attempt by two inmates in the late 1980s.

"They scaled the fence, they threw the rope over the wall and tried to scale down. The two inmates didn't make the escape. One inmate died, hit the pavement and died. The other had pretty serious injuries from the fall," said Murillo.

The outdated linear design of Men's Central Jail is a major factor in the security issues facing jail officials. In some modules, long rows of cells face cement block walls, making it difficult for deputies to see inside more than a few cells at a time.

"Not only is it a dangerous place, it's an antiquated place," said Dyer. "You know inmates are in here day in and day out and they learn how to defeat the locking mechanisms. And that goes for any jail. But in our case, we're 50 years old."

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is looking at a series of proposals to tear the jail down and build several new facilities. The current estimated cost of the proposed project is between $1.37 and $1.67 billion.


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