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Orange County sheriff's deputies investigate the escape of three inmates from Central Men's Jail early Jan. 23, in Santa Ana, Calif.
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Security Warnings by U.S. Preceded California Jail Break

Three inmates had a 16-hour head start after fleeing lock-up that had ‘poor supervision.'

Federal officials warned for years of “poor supervision” at a Southern California jail where three inmates — all charged with violent felonies — escaped last week, documents obtained by The Marshall Project show.

The Friday escape of Hossein Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu and Bac Duong from the Central Men’s Jail in Orange County touched off a vast manhunt and has rattled local residents. The men’s elaborate route to freedom seemed made for the movies: They cut through layers of metal and navigated plumbing tunnels to reach the roof. They then rappelled down four stories with makeshift ropes, perhaps strung together from bedsheets or jail clothing.

Their absence wasn’t noticed by security staff for about 16 hours after the Jan. 22 escape, officials have acknowledged.

Hossein Nayeri, Jonathan Tieu and Bac Duong escaped from the Men's Central Jail in Santa Ana, Ca. on Jan. 22.

But documents reveal that the county had been on notice for years from federal investigators that security at the jail complex needed to be tightened, especially at the men’s jail.

The U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation into the system in 2008 amid complaints about excessive force and mistreatment by staff that allegedly led to several inmate deaths. The inquiry came under the little-known federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, which allows the DOJ to intervene on behalf of the institutionalized, including prisoners. Under the act, the Justice Department can seek a settlement or a court-ordered agreement, but officials often try to negotiate changes and agreements outside of court, as they did in this case.

After Justice officials visited the jail in 2009, they reached out to Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens about needed improvements in security, use of force, racial segregation and inadequate medical and mental health care.

As recently as 2014, Justice officials concluded, in correspondence, that while the jail was a “much improved facility,” there were still problems.

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“Staffing and housing configuration issues result in poor supervision” in some of the units, federal officials said. The jail, built in 1968, has a “linear” structure, a type of jail construction that requires guards to patrol hallways rather than being able to keep an eye on inmates in a more open environment. “No one constructs like that anymore,” said Jonathan Smith, the former chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division Special Litigation Section. “Something can happen deep in those cells that no one can observe.”

Justice officials went on to recommend the county ensure sufficient staffing, install cameras, and check prisoners at irregular, less predictable intervals, in order to preserve security. Justice officials specifically pointed to the need for more staff in the Central Men’s Jail “so there are constantly deputies walking the perimeter of the linear units.”

A 2014 response from Hutchens to Justice officials outlines changes she implemented to improve security, including a reorganization of the jail’s command structure, the hiring of additional staff, and expanded camera coverage. “I believe we have mitigated the major flaw in the linear style jail design,” she wrote.

Hutchens’ office said that it could not immediately comment on the security issues. A published report in the Orange County Register said the men were present at a 5 a.m. photo-body count, a type of check in which officers compare inmates faces to their pictures. Administrative body counts, without the use of photos, were done at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. The men are believed to have already been missing at that point, but it went unnoticed. Staff didn’t realize the three were missing until another photo-body count was done at 9 p.m. that evening. The men’s charges range from murder to attempted murder to torture, and Nayeri has fled prosecution at least twice before.

The DOJ isn’t the only agency that has repeatedly raised questions about security at the jail. According to the Register, there have been 15 rooftop escapes at the jail (the last one was more than 20 years ago), and the Orange County Grand Jury, a government watchdog, has recommended the jail install more surveillance cameras for several years.