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Published August 24 2013

Cass County Jail racks up wrong releases

FARGO - For one jail inmate named Todd, it must have seemed like his lucky day. Meanwhile, the other Todd was left to wonder why he was still behind bars.

It was March 3, 2008, and the Cass County Jail inadvertently released the wrong Todd from custody. The booking officer, who failed to verify the proper inmate by his picture in the booking file, received a written reprimand, as did the correctional officer who sent the wrong Todd to booking.

The mistake was one of two instances since 2008 in which the jail let the wrong inmate go, according to a review by The Forum of personnel complaints obtained from the Cass County Sheriff’s Office through an open records request.

In addition, records revealed 11 instances in which adult inmates were improperly released, most recently on March 27, when a man was set free four days before his sentence was complete. A jail sergeant received a written reprimand for failing to thoroughly review the discharge paperwork.

Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney said it’s “a constant battle” to maintain minimum staffing levels at the jail, and that “anytime that you put your people under a lot of pressure, where you have human beings you’re going to have human mistakes.”

However, Laney said he believes he has “the most professional correctional staff that a sheriff could ask for,” and they are held accountable. Written reprimands were issued in nine of the 11 improper inmate releases, while the other two instances were blamed on paperwork issues and a policy failure.

“We don’t let anything go by, and small mistakes are accounted for,” Laney said. “And in a situation like this where you’re in a super busy environment, you’ve got a number of people coming through, mistakes can happen. And we always call on the carpet our mistakes and help our deputies learn.”

In the other case of the wrong inmate being released, the complaint was sustained but no disciplinary action was taken because the inmate’s photo was associated with the wrong name and there was confusion over incorrect paperwork in the files.

When put into perspective with the volume of inmates the jail handles – more than 43,000 bookings since Jan. 1, 2008, and more than 7,800 releases last year alone – Laney said it “shows pretty good attention to detail.”

“Would we like to see a perfect record, batting a thousand every time? Yes,” the sheriff said.

Release factors vary

According to disciplinary records, a variety of mistakes and oversights led to improper inmate releases. Included among those 11 instances:

• In August 2008, a jail corporal described by his sergeant as a “seasoned officer” misread an inmate’s criminal record and released him before he posted bond on a Griggs County warrant.

• A different corporal incorrectly counted an inmate’s days of credit for time served and didn’t check with a court officer on his release date, resulting in the inmate getting out of jail one day early in June 2010.

• An inmate who was allowed to leave the jail for work release in September 2011 had been sentenced on three charges but hadn’t posted bail on four additional charges. The deputy responsible also had failed to conduct a work-release site check on an inmate who had forged documents and made up the place of employment, allowing him out of the jail on a daily basis without a job. The deputy ultimately resigned before disciplinary action could be taken.

• Two deputies faced a complaint after giving the wrong information to the booking officer about whether an inmate had completed his sentence. The inmate was released in July 2011 but should have remained in custody on three felony charges. The incident was attributed to a policy failure and led to a policy change, and Laney wrote that the issue would be addressed in the deputies’ annual evaluations.

• A deputy provided the booking clerk with wrong information that resulted in an inmate being released in June 2012 on one felony charge when bail hadn’t been posted on a second charge. Both the deputy and booking received written reprimands. The month before, a deputy failed to verify paperwork and released an inmate who hadn’t posted the required $11,000 bond on existing charges.

• An inmate was released two days early in January 2011, but disciplinary records don’t state how it happened. It’s also unclear from the records how much time an inmate had left on his or her sentence when released early in May 2012.

Numbers not tracked

It’s unclear how the Cass County Jail stacks up against other county jails in the state when it comes to improper inmate releases because such numbers aren’t tracked.

The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation inspects county jails but has no regulatory oversight over the release of inmates from the jails, said Steven Engen, the department’s director of staff development and facility inspections.

“We do not track that,” he said.

Engen said Laney and his staff “are very forthright in what they report to us, and if there was an issue, I’m very confident they would self-report it. … They run a good facility, good administration.”

The DOCR inspects facilities for 116 conditions, including physical structure, food service, fire protection, sanitation and hygiene, safety and emergency procedures, security and health care, Engen said. Since the current Cass County Jail opened in 2002, “they’ve been in full compliance every year,” he said.

A review of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office’s personnel complaints found no disciplinary actions taken for improper releases of inmates since 2008, and Clay County Jail Administrator Julie Savat said she couldn’t recall any such instances in recent years.

However, Savat said she understands how it can happen, as jail staff constantly shuffle paperwork and inmates.

“I know it happens, because we hear about it when we go to meetings, but we’ve been pretty lucky,” she said.

Savat also noted that the Moorhead jail sees far fewer inmates than the Cass County Jail, averaging about 240 bookings per month, compared with more than 650 bookings per month at the jail in Fargo.

“We’re not the same. They deal with a lot more people than we do,” she said.

The Cass County Jail will begin dealing with even more inmates next year, increasing from 10 to 40 the number of beds guaranteed for prisoners of the U.S. Marshals Service.

Dan Orr, chief deputy U.S. marshal for North Dakota, said there’s “no question” about whether the jail is safe and secure.

“You know, those types of mistakes do occur occasionally at all facilities, I think,” he said. “I’m not aware of any instance where a federal prisoner has been released prior to the time they should be.”

The Marshals Service conducts annual facility audits of all jails it uses, though that doesn’t include reviewing booking and release logs, Orr said. Still, “Cass County has always been one of our best facilities for safety and security for the prisoners,” he said.

Jail administration at the county jails in Grand Forks and Bismarck said they couldn’t recall ever releasing the wrong inmate or any recent instances of inmates being released early or without posting the proper bond.

“It can get confusing,” said Capt. Lisa Wicks, assistant jail administrator at the Burleigh County Detention Center in Bismarck. “To keep that sorted, it takes constant sorting and supervision.”

“I’m not saying that it’s never happened,” said Bret Burkholder, administrator of the Grand Forks County Correctional Center. “I can’t recall it happening.”

Improving the process

Lt. Andrew Frobig started as a correctional officer at the Cass County Jail in 2004 and worked his way up to lieutenant, and he said the facility “has been busier every step of the way.”

“More often than not, we’re at the bare minimum staff we need just to function without any kind of hiccups at all such as emergency hospital duties or unannounced transports that we need to do, things like that,” he said.

But Frobig said he doesn’t buy into the idea that jail staffers are “too busy to get it right” or that there are excuses for things being incorrect.

“Our goal is to get every one of them correct according to the wishes and orders of the court,” he said. “That being said, the people working here are human, the people working at the court that send us the paperwork are human. It’s understandable that there will be communication difficulties and we can only do our best and try to improve.”

The jail has taken steps toward that end in recent years, including verifying mug shots and making the inmate state his or her full name and date of birth before release. A change last year also requires supervisors to now double-check and sign off on release paperwork.

Frobig said fortunately none of the improper releases involved high-risk offenders. It’s usually other jurisdictions or the courts that bring the mistake to the jail’s attention, he said. The jail’s switch to the New World recordkeeping system in March 2011 also may have contributed to some errors as staff learned the system, he said.

The jail has been using a wristband identification system, but officials plan to upgrade to higher-quality wristbands this fall because the current wristbands, similar to those used in hospitals, last only about two weeks, Frobig said. The wristbands display the inmate’s name, date of birth and photograph.

Questionable actions

In addition to the improper releases, records revealed some questionable actions by several Cass County Jail staff, most of whom resigned during the internal investigation or were fired as a result.

• In January 2008, a correctional officer took the keys to the jail’s Charlie pod home with her after her shift. When contacted by a sergeant, the officer “did not see what the big deal was” and had a friend bring the keys to the jail for her. The friend was under investigation for welfare fraud in Clay County and had served time for violation of a protection order in Cass County.

The incident was attributed to a policy failure, and no disciplinary action was taken.

• A deputy received a three-day unpaid suspension and written reprimand after reporting to work Aug. 20, 2009, with alcohol on his breath and registering a .05 BAC at 9:30 a.m. He also had to undergo one year of random breath sampling.

The deputy also had called in the day before saying he couldn’t work because he had a sick child and his wife was out of town for work, which wasn’t true, records state. The deputy later resigned in February 2010 after a complaint about a decline in his job performance.

• A correctional officer resigned in August 2010, three days after a complaint was filed alleging he sent text messages to an inmate’s girlfriend trying to “hook up.” The same officer had been arrested the previous month for driving under the influence in Becker County, Minn., for which he received a five-day suspension without pay. Another deputy also received a five-day suspension for interfering with the arrest of the correctional officer.

• An internal investigation found that the jail’s commissary clerk had been working a second job not approved by sheriff’s administration and had falsified her time card. She was fired in March 2011.

• A correctional officer resigned in March after an investigation found that she had allowed a woman into two secured areas of the jail without identifying her first. Chief Deputy Jim Thoreson, in concurring with the recommended four-day suspension, questioned whether the employee “has the mental and physical ability to function as a correctional officer for the organization.” The employee resigned June 17.

• As previously reported by The Forum, a jail sergeant resigned in May after an internal investigation found he used excessive force when he pepper sprayed an inmate in the hand and face while the inmate was strapped to a restraint chair. Sgt. Lyndon Worden doesn’t dispute what happened but claims he was targeted for dismissal because he questioned the sheriff.

Laney against stressed that the sheriff’s office has “very high accountability” and allows only the “best of the best” to wear a Cass County badge. “Every now and then we have an employee that can’t meet that standard,” he said.

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