Blue Mass

Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano speaks during a Blue Mass in honor of Gregg County first responders Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019, at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church. (Les Hassell/News-Journal Photo)

All but four of 29 employees at Gregg County’s South Jail were disciplined after a “systematic failure” to follow supervision procedures allowed an inmate to escape undetected the week of Christmas.

As a result, Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano said additional safeguards have been added to ensure jail staff follow required procedures. Extra security is being added to the jail as well to help prevent future escapes.

In an interview Friday, Cerliano said the disciplinary action for each person was determined based on the responsibilities the employees had at the time Jace Martin Laws, 34, of Gladewater escaped Dec. 23, what the staff member actually was doing and whether it followed jail policy. He said Laws, who in October had been sentenced to prison for assaulting two Longview police officers, was gone from the jail for 57 hours before his escape was discovered.

“I met with the staff myself. I told them, not only am I disappointed. I’m embarrassed. Those are the words I used. Your actions are unacceptable,” Cerliano said. Then, 10 of the staff members were given a choice: Voluntarily resign or be fired.

“There were nine that resigned effective immediately. One had the eligibility to retire, so he retired immediately,” he said.

Eight people were suspended without pay for one to three days, and seven received written reprimands.

Cerliano on Friday would not provide the names of the employees who were disciplined without the News-Journal filing a request for public information.

An investigation after the escape determined there was a “systematic failure of the system” that touched employees on all four shifts, Cerliano said. The jail’s policy and procedures, as well as state requirements, were not followed.

“(Laws) was gone for 57 hours from the time that we know that he was on the outside of the building until he was discovered to be missing,” Cerliano said.

Jail policy and state jail commission requirements call for hourly checks of prisoners. Gregg County Jail standards call for prisoner counts four times a day, while state standards call for one, he said.

Mealtimes employ a roster system that also should have discovered Laws’ absence. Also, Cerliano said Laws broke pieces off a metal frame around a mirror made of shiny metal material in an empty jail cell next to his. Weekly maintenance checks should have discovered the damage, but it went unnoticed and unreported.

“In that 57 hours (before Laws’ absence was discovered), that’s 57 hourly checks that is required by policy but also required by the jail commission. It’s 10 head counts, which is a head count of all the inmates to ensure that they’re in place,” and seven meals, Cerliano said.

Jail commission standards require the state agency to be notified of an escape within 24 hours. Cerliano sent the required email at 11:36 a.m. Dec. 26 after learning about the escape about 8 a.m. that day.

The jail conducted its own investigation into the escape, and on Dec. 31 invited jail commission staff to conduct its own survey of the jail. Cerliano said the jail also voluntarily notified the commission of the jail’s failure to follow supervision procedures.

The commission’s inspection report, which is also dated Dec. 31, found the jail in “administrative noncompliance,” noting the jail’s voluntary admission that it had failed to conduct the required inmate checks.

Cerliano said the paperwork documenting the jail’s procedures surrounding the incident “looks great,” but it wasn’t recording what was actually happening.

“We have an automated system, where you go by and check with the system with a barcode,” he said. “An actual human has to walk down the walkways and scan the barcode. When they do that, they’re supposed to look in and visually look at the inmate to ensure that they’re all in there. We can’t see that on the barcode system.”

Video cameras monitor the hallways. Additional cameras also have been installed in the control rooms where the South Jail is located on the sixth and seventh floors of the courthouse. Those cameras will allow jail supervisors and the command staff to check remotely with a computer or phone to see what jail staff are doing.

“That’s unfortunate,” Cerliano said of the need to monitor staff in that manner.

“I placed trust in the supervisors and the line staff to do the work. Obviously, that trust was violated,” he said. “If we have to look at the cameras to see what our staff is doing, not only the inmates but our staff, that’s what we’ll do.”

Gregg County has three jail facilities. The South Jail in the courthouse houses up to 193 inmates, with a total capacity of 916 inmates including the North Jail and another facility outside of Kilgore. Security also will be reviewed at those facilities, Cerliano said.

“I can tell you that based on the security survey (by the jail commission staff), the only vulnerable spot in the perimeter of the (South) jail was this one HVAC duct,” that took Laws to the roof, Cerliano said. “He was able to find that, access that. It was not equipped with a security barrier — bars or a screen....”

That issue has been corrected, and Cerliano is awaiting the jail commission’s approval for another security addition as well.

“As soon as we get approval from the jail commission, we’re going to install a motion alarm system for the perimeter of the jail,” he said, explaining that if anyone accesses the HVAC system, crawl space or pipe chase, for instance, it would set off a motion sensor alarm.

While Laws had an escape plan, he didn’t really have a plan for what he would do once he got out of the jail, Cerliano said. He also said no one else would face criminal charges in relation to Laws’ escape.

“Within 8 hours, we were less than 12 hours behind him by tracking him. We made up a huge amount of time,” Cerliano said.

He attributed Laws’ quick recapture to the “law enforcement partners” who helped capture Laws.

“It was around-the-clock effort until he was taken back,” Cerliano said.